A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 77 – The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal – May 16th, 2010

When I saw a flurry of notes on twitter and facebook about today being the anniversary of Jim Henson’s death I thought to myself “Really? It’s been twenty years? Twenty years without Jim Henson?” It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to think about, to be honest. When I was little, my television choices were limited to PBS or nothing. Sesame Street (along with Mister Rogers, The Electric Company and Reading Rainbow) was a cornerstone of my childhood. When I got a little older and could get away with watching Saturday morning cartoons on the other networks, I found that if I woke up early enough I could catch episodes of The Muppet Show, aired at 6:30 in the morning for some bizarre reason. Thinking about it now, the Muppets and thus Jim Henson, were definitely one of the pop culture touchstones Andy and I shared when we first started getting to know each other. A shared love of the Muppets and all things Henson helped to cement our friendship, certainly. So I owe Jim Henson, much like I owe Best Brains for giving me MST3K.

I used to own The Dark Crystal on VHS. Like many of my childhood favorites, it was taped off of television, with commercial breaks and a fuzzy reception and repeated viewings never help a fuzzy picture on a VHS tape (I try to explain this to library patrons but no one listens). It was pan and scan and the color was so washed out that the already almost too bright figures at the end were pretty much just white blobs who might possibly have had arms. I watched the hell out of that tape. And I always knew it was an amazing story, told beautifully, but it felt like I was missing something. And I was right. What I was missing was the true cinematic scope of some of the shots, and the richness of the world, hidden under static and the failures of magnetic tape. It’s such a joy to watch it on DVD now and really be able to see it.

The story in this movie doesn’t even really feel like a fantasy movie to me. It’s definitely a magical quest, where our hero, Gen, the last member of an almost extinct race (or so he thinks) is given the task of recovering a crystal shard in order to rejoin it with the titular dark crystal. His father figure and teacher dies before fully explaining (of course). And along the way he meets a witch, hears about a prophecy, gets attacked, meets a companion who will end up saving the day more than once (what with being a girl and having wings), and finally achieves his goal. Yeah, that’s a quest plot all right. But it feels more like a fairy tale meant for another place. The world Gen and the Mystics and Skekzies and Kira and the Podlings and Aughra inhabit is so intricately built, so detailed and thorough, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a completely different world from our own. And yet the tone of the movie, from the storyteller introducing the story to the visuals to the repeated themes to the ending, says fairly tale to me.

I don’t think I can stress enough how much I love the world this movie takes place in. Sure, the world Gen and Kira travel through for the vast majority of the movie is a dark place, slowly dying due to the fractured crystal, but it is a full world still. The creatures in it, from the swamp monster disguised as a cave to the root-like creatures guarding Aughra’s home, to my favorites, the landstriders, are all amazing. Creative in concept and in execution. In my opinion the Skekzies are a lot more fully realized than the Mystics are, but I don’t really mind. Everything else is so wonderfully done, and the Skekzies provide the dramatic tension after all, so we spend more time with them.

I’m so glad we watched this tonight. Having seen and read a good deal about Jim Henson, much as I love the Muppets, this feels like the right thing to watch and remember him by. He knew the power of a good story and good storytelling and he did it well.

I’m not going to make a habit of this, but I would like to point people to a beautifully done piece of fanfiction for this movie: Fractures, which is backstory for Aughra and how the crystal was cracked. It made an impression on me and I wanted to share it.


May 16, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Dark Crystal

May 16, 2010

The Dark Crystal

Twenty years ago today one of my favorite people in the world was taken from us. Even now, twenty years after the fact, I am not recovered from Jim Henson’s death. He was a great gentle artist who touched everybody who was a part of my generation. So today, not so much to commemorate his death as to celebrate his life, we’re watching my favorite Jim Henson movie. The Dark Crystal.

You my have intuited by now, if you’re reading all these reviews, that there is nothing I enjoy more than visiting and discovering new worlds. This movie seems custom made to feed this aspect of my nature. It’s a lush, detailed and beautiful piece of world building. Indeed it’s quite an astonishing feat. There’s not a thing in this movie from our world. Every character, race, creature and plant you see is a created thing, drawn from the imagination of Brian Froud and brought to life by the wizardry of Jim Henson and his family of fabricators and puppeteers.

There are so many cool creations in this movie. The huge bug-like Garthim, the twisted evil Skeksis, the peaceful Mystics, the Landstriders, Aughra, and on and on. Everything is so alien, and yet often so familiar. It’s as though there really is this entire other world that Brian, Jim and all found for us to witness. And it’s all done in such an honest way with the very real performances of the puppeteers. If this movie were made today it would be a computer generated movie. Everything would be polished and perfect. But it wouldn’t have the same spirit. There’s a kind of chaos to filming a practical puppet that you simply cannot get from the carefully planned and meticulously animated world of CGI. Sure it could look more “real” and seamless if it weren’t relying on a mix of hand-puppets, body suits, rod puppets and the rare marionette, but it wouldn’t have the heart – the human performance.

Furthermore I love the storytelling here. From the narration over the dual openings with the Skeksis and Mystics to the cool way they layer in the parallels between the two groups. The whole thing has that epic, deep and magical feel that I so crave in a fantasy film. It’s so hard to find a great epic fantasy. They never seem to live up to the magic that should be their core.

This movie, however, does live up to that promise. For me at least. It is the ultimate epic fantasy adventure in a world entirely other than our own. Thank you, Jim. You are missed.

May 16, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment