The Dark Crystal


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dark Crystal
"Some of the best puppetry you'll see anywhere."

Intended as a whimsical children's fantasy story, The Dark Crystal succeeded in terrifying generations of kids with its nightmarish monsters - a gentle latter-day fairytale that accidentally became the real thing. It's the story of two young humanoid creatures, the gelflings, raised by strangers after a brutal genocide; of a world in crisis, where an evil regime stands on the brink of immortality; and of a desperate quest through a world full of monsters. It also has Eastern mysticism, a hyperactive pet 'dog', and some of the best puppetry you'll see anywhere.

Now that we're so used to seeing CGI in everything, it can be difficult to appreciate the sheer amount of effort that went into films like this, but The Dark Crystal stands up well alongside its modern counterparts. The facial movements of its creatures are so subtle that animal viewers react to them as if they were alive. Their bodies were painstakingly constructed and some weighed so much that the performers could only bear them up for a few minute at a time. The Skeksis, evil creatures seeking to solidify their power, retain their ability to frighten young children, and no amount of exposure to modern media seems adequate as a defence.

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The titular crystal is part of a giant machine providing the Skeksis with power. It does so because it's broken; if the gelflings can restore its missing fragment in time, they might still save their world. The mystic notions behind all this might be looked on cynically by most adults, but don't seem to be a problem for the target audience. Everything is beautifully realised, from the carefully created sets (which blend surprisingly well with real landscapes) to the sound work and the filtered lighting that gives the whole thing an enchanted cast.

As for our young heroes, earnest Jen is said to be the closest puppet master Jim Henson ever came to putting himself in a film. His wide-eyed discovery of a world he has barely explored in the past makes him an interesting counterpart for the more savvy, assertive Kira, who is far more than just a token girl. The presence of energetic fluffball pet Fizzgig and of the small, lumpen Podlings who raised Kira, helps to give young viewers a more immediate sense of the gelflings' responsibility, easier to relate to than the existential threat of the coming eclipse.

Although it takes its young viewers on quite a dark journey with upsetting as well as scary scenes, it's not much of a spoiler to say that this film does have a happy ending and provides much-needed reassurance. It's one of those stories all children need sooner or later where the world is not safe and what matters is to have the courage and intelligence to survive it anyway. Despite its fantasy setting it unfolds quite straightforwardly in this regard, without the twists of logic that would be found in Henson's next production, Labyrinth - it's not simultaneously presenting a challenge to adults, except perhaps those who still feel compelled to hide behind the sofa from the Skeksis' scuttling minions. This doesn't mean it's less enjoyable for older viewers, however, as the characterisation is strong, the setting persistently inventive, and there's a great deal to admire about this remarkable production.

Reviewed on: 25 May 2015
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Two gelfling head to restore a shard to the dark crystal and order to their world.
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Director: Jim Henson, Frank Oz

Writer: Jim Henson, David Odell

Starring: Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Louise Gold, Brian Muehl, Bob Payne, Mike Quinn, Tim Rose, Jean-Pierre Amiel, Hugh Spight, Robbie Barnett, Swee Lim, Simon Williamson

Year: 1982

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, UK


Bradford 2011

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If you like this, try:

The Princess Bride