Steve Whitmire (The Muppets)
Stephen Garlick (The Adventures of Black Beauty)
Lisa Maxwell (The Bill)
Billie Whitelaw (Quills)
Percy Edwards (Labyrinth)
Barry Dennen (The Shining)
Had Jim Henson simply rested after giving the world The Muppets, nobody would’ve complained. After all, that Kermit-led revolution changed the face of family entertainment and restored some needed edge to G-rated comedy world. However, Henson was an energetic, curious creator, which led to a follow-up project that ate away years of his life, severely challenged the agility of his performers, and solidified him as an absolutely dazzling filmmaking architect. The picture was “The Dark Crystal.”Henson’s flirtation with darker material and his infatuation with the thorns of invented mythology found a cozy home in Dark Crystal. It’s a film intended for those who beg for a sense of adventure to their cinema, who revel in the joy of a filmmaker taking a risk and questing vigilantly to raise the art form a few needed notches. Dark Crystal is a miraculous rush of innovation and storytelling patience, and, in the last 27 years, the feature has grown from a 1982 misfire to a cult wonder to a bona-fide classic that’s timeless in stature and masterful in execution.
What’s exhilarating about the film is that Henson and his collaborators (including co-director Frank Oz) were manufacturing a fairy tale from their own creative well. While influenced by the great fantasy works of the world, Henson paved his own road here, making certain every corner of the frame was bestowed with a mysterious creature or laborious design effort that created a consuming three-dimensional depth to the movie. Honestly, I’ve never seen such an extraordinary effort placed into a feature film before, and the way Henson and Oz take their time to let the details marry the film’s glacial, dreamy pace is endlessly impressive. It’s a directorial job of pure faith, and a design accomplishment (courtesy of wizard Brian Froud) that’s heart-stopping every inch of the way.Sure, we have plenty of detailed fantasy juggernauts today, like Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, yet Dark Crystal is a film you can nearly reach out and caress; a picture blessed with unmistakable attention placed to weathered fabrics and wrinkled skin of the characters, not to mention Oswald Morris’s luxurious cinematography, which wields splendid coloring like a lethal weapon — I’ve never viewed a more menacing shade of purple in my life.
Of course, all of this is in service of the puppetry, which, at the time, was an outrageous advancement in the field (and still wows today); Henson pushing his team to new limits of expression and sheer character size. With the vulture-like Skeksis, the performers sell the rancid, decaying regality of the species marvelously; a collection of vile beings in full-on panic and treachery mode after learning their existence is drawing to a leisurely, painful close. The Mystics are the counter argument: kindly creatures that move with Zen-like grace and march willingly toward their fate. Characters like astronomer Aughra and stilt-creation The Landstriders reveal their own lovable novelty, but the blockbuster accomplishments of the film are the Gelflings, Jen and Kira, and the exquisiteness of their reactions, inviting a striking level of sympathy for what is essentially a ball of felt with plastic eyes and perfectly coiffed hair.
I supposed what Dark Crystal boils down to is a mosaic of bravery. It’s brave of the production to seek out their own legends and invent their own cocktail of spirituality for a small assembly of puppets. It’s brave of the film to demand performers search within themselves to lend invaluable reality to their characters, even if it meant unbearably stifling hours stapled to a partner under layers of wool and rubber. And it’s brave of Henson to submit to his loyal audience a demanding piece of storytelling and visual complexity that’s miles away from Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and our pal Kermit. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t appreciate this monumental leap of filmmaking faith.