The Test of Time: The Dark Crystal (1982)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY JIM HENSON & FRANK OZ

STARRING JIM HENSON, FRANK OZ, KATHRYN MULLEN, DAVE GOELZ, BRIAN MUEHL

Let’s hear it y’all: are you a Skeksis or a Mystic?

F*ck that Jack, I’m a Garthim!

Seriously though, who’s pumped to peep the new Netflix series THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE when all 10 episodes drop on Friday, August 30th? I realize the OG Jim Henson/Frank Oz classic is about as polarizing as they come – people either tend to wholeheartedly love it or passionate loathe this childhood nightmare – so let us know where you stand on the matter with a little spilled blood below! In the meantime, I think we’re past due to assess how THE DARK CRYSTAL has withstood the annals of time since its release in December of 1982. Remember, the flick not only floored audiences with its richly textured world-building and immersive sense of puppetry, the film proved to be quite the hit at the box-office as well. The flick earned $40 million against a $15 million budget, and did so while competing with Spielberg’s E.T., which was released the same weekend. Can you imagine going to the movies in 1982 and seeing not only E.T. but THE DARK CRYSTAL immediately after? Talk about mind mother*cking blown!

Of course, we know E.T. is still about as durable a mainstream blockbuster as there has ever been, but what about THE DARK CRYSTAL? Have the newfangled tech and rampant CGI of the 21st century rendered the flick an archaic relic to be forgotten? Or has Henson’s impressive puppetry and dark fairytale still dazzle the way it must have in 82? Let’s find out in The Test of Time below!

THE STORY: Henson originated the tale of THE DARK CRYSTAL as a means of reintroducing dark, Brothers Grimm-style fairytales to children. According to Henson, fear is an essential emotion for children to feel in their formative years. When it came to actually penning the story, word is Henson and his daughter were snowed in at the airport, during which they began making extensive notes that Jim ultimately turned into a 25-page script called The Crystal. Of course, Henson had already been world famous as the creator of The Muppets, and was considered the foremost authority an all things animatronic puppet related. As for his co-director Frank Oz (Yoda yo!), he voiced many of said Henson Muppets en route to becoming one of the most influential voice actors of all time. Together they set out to create a dark, wildly imaginative and highly unnerving fantasy adventure extravaganza. And boy did they succeed!

In terms of the story itself, I think we can all agree that Henson/Oz opted to sacrifice a complicated plot in favor of a crafting an awe-inspiring world, the likes of which we had ever seen. That is, the storyline of THE DARK CRYSTAL is quite monastic, probably to enable children to closely follow along without getting too lost. Indeed, THE DARK CRYSTAL is the AVATAR of puppet flicks, crossed between J.R.R. Tolkien by way of f*cking Fragle Rock! Anyway, the flick opens with a lengthy expository speech about the planet Thra, which has been unstable for the past 1,000 years. The ruling crystal has been cracked, the result of which has formed two rivaling races: the cruel Skeksis and the gentle Mystics, or urRu. Caught dead in the middle of these factions is a Gelfling named Jen, who is tasked with the difficult mission of retrieving the broken Crystal Shard from a nasty old harridan named Aughra (ever notice Augrah looks like the bloated, boozy, coked-up twin sister of The Cryptkeeper? Yikes!). Along the way, Jen meets a fellow Gelfling named Kira, and his pet dog Fizzgig, who help Jen on his intrepid quest to find the Shard. They encounter a nasty and gnarly spate of lumbering mutants, many of which resemble large hideous birds decorated in ornate regalia. Shite’s a frightful sight!

As Jen and Kira traverse a gorgeous landscape, magical forests and the like before coming upon a ruinous Gelfling metropolis, they face graver danger. The Garthim, henchmen of the Skeksis that resemble giant crab-beetles, are among the scariest sights in the entire film. Jen and Kira only have until the moment all three sons of the Thra align to procure the crystal shard and restore order to the land. Can they do it? And at what cost?

WHAT HOLDS-UP: As a spectacular visual marvel, the sheer artistry of the technical craftsmanship is easily the most durable aspect of THE DARK CRYSTAL. In fact, so much of preproduction was molded around Brian Froud’s groundbreaking visual design that the script was written later to be tailored to the visual architecture. We cannot overstate or undersell how well these practical FX hold up, as everything you see on the screen (for the most part) is done physically, on set, in real time as it was being filmed. This film predates the smooth, realistic CGI we’re all spoiled with nowadays, and really required many unsung heroes behind the scenes to control the massive puppets and rudimentary animatronics. The movie was absolutely dazzling when it came out, with many noting they’d never seen anything like it. Watching the film today, it’s easy to why, as the gorgeously detailed production design, set decoration, immersive mise-en-scene and disturbing puppetry really do defy the past 37 years.

In terms of retaining the level of unsettling terror many of us witnessed as a child, there are at least two scenes that still hold serve. The first comes fairly early in the film, when the vicious band of Skeksis nearly draw and quarter one of their own, whom they suspect is a traitor. The bird is claustrophobically accosted by a gaggle of ugly ass vulture looking mutants, his clothes forcibly stripped, and his disgusting naked body left humiliated. It’s a scene the uses the puppets as an imminent physical threat, with gang-violence at that, and genuinely feels unnerving to see even these days. It not only induces sympathy, but makes you feel desirous for escaping the inescapable.

Another scene that continues to mortify is the dinner scene, in which a gaggle of rapacious Skeksis feast on indiscernible piles of “more foooood!” These odious beasts foully dig into their meals with a ravenous, birdlike aggression that immediately makes one revolt in horror. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the Skeksis unleash a basket of desert critters, called “Crawlies,” which were controlled off-screen via remote control wind-up toys. The oversized aviary nightmares have little compunction slamming a cute little hatchling down their gullets. This scene will no doubt f*ck up any youngster, and still disturbs to the point that you’d rather look away the lean in.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: While it gives no pleasure to say this, we gotta keep it real. It almost feels as if the sum of THE DARK CRYSTAL does NOT equal the mastery of its standout parts. While it is no doubt a beautifully wicked movie to fix your eyeballs on throughout, the good versus evil story sort of feels too clichéd, even by the standard of kids movies, to really earn the title of greatness in 2019. Worse, the plot tends to get lost in the eye-popping visuals. Word is Henson cut 20 minutes from the film after a calamitous screening in San Francisco, resulting in him redubbing a number of characters to help clear up the plot. The cuts help, for sure, but the film still seems to favor spectacle over story, which, in this day and age, is hard to overlook given the great technological advancements, one that often come equipped with a stronger story. Again, that’s why I call THE DARK CRYSTAL the AVATAR of animatronic puppetry – it’s overly simple, but makes up with its utterly enrapturing visual display. In fact, Jen was originally to be a blue Gelfling, which would have made the ties to Na’vi too obvious to ignore. Then again, perhaps Cameron would have turned the Na’vi purple or some shit as a result.

Another thing that does not hold up very well these days is the speed of the Garthim. Poor bastards! Word is the costumes were so heavy that 5-minute breaks were needed throughout the shoot in order to provide respite for the actors portraying the Garthim. Looking at the film today, you can see how slow and lumbering the Garthim are, especially during action-packed fight scenes. They’re simply too sluggish by today’s standards to really excite us visually. Aurally, there are times when the movie becomes too loud and overbearingly shrill, with Oz’s voice almost too recognizable from character to character. In fact, right around the 59-minute mark, as the slave podlings are getting berated, Oz goes full on Yoda with one of his voices, and it’s impossible not to hear. I wouldn’t say it blows, but it definitely took me out of the scene immediately. So too did the concomitant visual effects, which clearly took a monetary backseat to the animated puppets. The pink vision beams and translucent ghosts at the end of the film are painfully outdated, and damn near sully the impressive puppetry it shares the screen with.

THE VERDICT: On the whole, THE DARK CRYSTAL is a bit uneven when viewed these days. While the technical artistry and high level of practical craftsmanship cannot be denied, nor is it all that aged, the overly simple story still somehow manages to get lost in the eye-popping spectacle. The lavish production design, set decorations, animatronic puppetry, costumes and makeup all hold up extremely well, even in the age of advanced computer generated imagery. The overall visual display of THE DARK CRYSTAL is beyond reproach. Where the movie has lost steam, aside from the confusion of what should be a simple story, is in the poorly rendered visual effects. And aside from a few standout scenes that still retain the horror, watching THE DARK CRYSTAL as an adult is far less unnerving than seeing it as a child, the target demo. Perhaps it’s only right for a movie that plays so vitally on childhood fears to lose a bit of its malevolent luster once graduating to adulthood. Let’s hope the opposite is the case for Netflix’s THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE!

GET THE DARK CRYSTAL ON 4K HERE

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

5379 Articles Published

Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.