Although it arose from the talented minds behind The Muppet Show, this 1982 fantasy classic is no kids’ film. While The Dark Crystal can be enjoyed by kids, it’s a little too dark and a little too abstract for your average seven-year-old.
Set in “another world, in another time…in the age of wonder,” The Dark Crystal represents a monumental creative undertaking, and the first live-action feature film to not have any humans appearing on screen. While this 25th Anniversary Edition release appears to be a quadruple-dip, it just might be worth your attention.
If you’re like me, you saw this film as a kid in the 80’s, haven’t seen it since and, at best, vaguely recall a few iconic images or frightening moments. Thus, I shall summarize the story. If you’re one of the many fans of this cult classic, skip ahead one paragraph, or hit the comments section to inform me that there were, in fact, human actors used as doubles for the Gelflings in certain sequences.
The Dark Crystal is a fantastic tale about Jen, a young Gelfling (an elf-like race), who is destined by prophecy to save the world from evil. 1,000 years earlier, the Dark Crystal was damaged, splitting a race known as the urSkeks into two new races: the slow, gentle Mystics and the dark, vile Skeksis. The Skeksis took power, banished the Mystics and have since reigned over an age of chaos. Prophecy stated, though, that the crystal could be mended by one Gelfling when the planet’s three suns aligned. Since that act would end the Skeksis’ rule, they sought to exterminate the Gelfling race, but Jen survived to be raised by the Mystics. When his mentor, the oldest and wisest of the Mystics, is near death, he reveals to Jen the prophecy and instructs him to go forth on a dangerous quest to restore the crystal and rescue the planet from infinite darkness under the Skeksis.
Sounds like your basic fantasy tale, right? It’s like a bare-bones Lord of the Rings, or any other derivative good-versus-evil fantasy works of the past half-century. It’s true, the story is nothing special, but what this film has going for it is the magic of muppeteering. All of the characters you see on-screen are not only wonderfully designed and intricately detailed, but they’re also puppets manually and mechanically controlled by up to five or six people, including master puppeteers, dancers, acrobats and various other contortionists. In 1982, The Dark Crystal was a groundbreaking achievement, the result of five years’ efforts of folks who pioneered and invented ways to tell a story like it had never been told before.
That’s got to be worth something — respect, if not admiration. But is the film entertaining, especially after all these years? Yes, and no. For those who can appreciate an older film with a slower story, look past the film’s handful of obsolete visual effects and, above all, value the creativity involved in this medium, The Dark Crystal will be an enjoyable viewing experience. For anyone else, this is not a must-see by any means, unless perhaps you want to prepare for the upcoming sequel in the works by the Jim Henson Company.
The Dark Crystal — 25th Anniversary Edition is presented on two discs, with the main film on disc one in 2.35:1 widescreen format. While this release purports to include a newly remastered transfer, word around the ‘net is this is the same high-definition transfer found on the 2003 collector’s edition set. In any case, the picture looks very good for its age. Most remarkably, the picture is clean, with no noticable artifacts from the source print. Beyond that, the colours are rich, with the many earth tones and darker shades showing a surprising level of depth for a 1982 film, and the picture is nice and sharp, which works wonders for the detailed world created by co-directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz and concept artist Brian Froud. Fans are sure to be pleased with this presentation.
The disc’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track is right up there with the video, offering a terrific listening experience for a film of this vintage. All dialogue is both audible and full, avoiding the annoying tinny quality that often rears its head on older releases. The surround channels aren’t used much for directional effects, but they do have plenty of action from the film’s score, which provides a rich, spooky accompaniment to the story. Again, though, it’s not clear whether this is a new mix for the anniversary edition, or merely a carryover from the collector’s set.
5.1 audio is also offered in Japanese, while subtitles are available in English, French and Japanese.
Given that this is at least the fourth DVD release of The Dark Crystal, it’s remarkable that the folks behind the production can still drum up new bonus material. It’s clear that this is the area where the Anniversary Edition separates itself from the pack, with brand-new featurettes and a commentary track by concept artist Brian Froud, from whose mind evolved the bizarre and beautiful characters and environments of the film’s world. Here’s the breakdown, beginning with what’s new:
- New on The Dark Crystal — 25th Anniversary Edition:
- Audio commentary by Brian Froud: a welcome treat for fans, and anyone else looking to gain insight from a man who devoted five years of his life to this project. Obviously, Froud talks mainly about his designs, what inspired them and how close the final executions were to his original concepts, but this doesn’t prove too narrow a focus. You see, Froud designed nearly all of the Dark Crystal world, from the characters and locations to the flourishing plant and animal life. As such, he has things to say about nearly every frame of the film, from start to finish.
- Light on the Path of Creation: this 20-minute featurette explores the film’s creative origins, including the mythological and philosophical ideas that sprung from Jim Henson’s mind, and the process of bringing the film to life. For fans, the best part of this one will likely be newly unearthed test footage, clips of which we see throughout.
- Shard of Illusion: a little shorter than the previous featurette, this piece is nonetheless equally interesting, as it provides insight more specifically into how the characters evolved, and also expounds on the difficult testing process and troubles with Hollywood.
- Character Concepts gallery: while it’s neat to see these Froud drawings of the Skeksis and the Mystics, there are only nine or 10 designs included.
- Carried over from previous releases::
- The World of The Dark Crystal: at nearly 60 minutes, this made-for-TV (circa the early 80’s) documentary presents a detailed, fascinating look at the film’s production, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from cast and crew. I’d rather watch this again than the movie itself, frankly.
- Work Print Scenes: one of Henson’s early ideas that didn’t make the final film was that the Skeksis would speak their own language, with English subtitles. This collection of scenes shows what that would have been like. Ignore the poor quality, and enjoy hearing Frank Oz speak gibberish.
- Deleted Scenes: just one, actually, but it’s a significant scene, showing the funeral of the dead Skeksis emperor. It runs about 3 minutes, and would likely have proved too dark for the final film — interesting to see, but a good choice to cut.
I admire The Dark Crystal as a remarkable project that exemplifies innovation, talent and creativity in nearly every aspect. Having explored all of the background material on this 2-disc Anniversary Edition release, I’ve found new respect for Henson, Oz, Froud and company, but what hasn’t changed is I don’t find the film very entertaining. The story is a weak point, and anyone can tell you a great film needs to begin with a great script. That said, I hardly think I’ll be persuading anyone at this point, so I’ll just say that this quadruple-dip release is definitely an upgrade worth considering for fans young and old.
Other coverage and reviews:
- Blogcritics’ Josh Lasser explains why Henson’s The Labyrinth is superior to The Dark Crystal.
- 7MilesDown waxes nostalgic about Henson’s dark masterpiece
- DVD Talk’s Brian Orndorf holds a Dark Crystal love-fest
- The Muppet Newsflash hawks Anniversary Edition Dark Crystal figurines