The Curmudgeon


Monday, November 07, 2016

The Dark Crystal

Jim Henson & Frank Oz 1982

Created by the Muppet godfathers and the English artist Brian Froud, The Dark Crystal was supposedly the first feature film with a cast made up entirely of puppets; though I suspect that a couple of long shots employ meatware body-doubles. The lack of CGI sophistication may put off some modern fantasy fans; as may the dearth of epic pitched battles consisting entirely of frontal assaults, energetic eviscerations and last-minute reinforcements. Nevertheless, despite the genre's moral progress since I first saw The Dark Crystal on its original release, I remain rather fond of this one.

The story is simple and the symbolism obvious: A long time ago the Crystal cracked, resulting in the emergence of two new races: the cruel but clever Skeksis and the benign but unworldly Mystics. The Skeksis are genocidal slave-holders who cheat the ageing process by draining the vital essence of lesser breeds, such as the friendly, potato-faced Podlings; but in spite of their crimes the Skeksis do not kill one another, which places them an ethical cut or two above Homo sapiens ipsedixit. Because of a prophecy which seems to predict the end of their power, the Skeksis have done their best to wipe out the elf-like race of Gelflings; but it turns out that a couple have survived, by whose hands "or else by none" the Crystal must be healed.

As with many fantasy films, the best bits of The Dark Crystal are in the design and the incidental details; although it is not entirely incidental that the Mystics' anatomical arrangements are as enigmatic and impractical as their daily rituals. The Skeksis (with whom we spend much more time, some of it hilarious) are scaly vulture-headed hunchbacks, while their stormtroopers are superbly unpleasant tentacled beetle-tanks with tiny heads that swivel from side to side in endless disapproval. Aughra, a Wise Woman with horns, Billie Whitelaw's voice and an unsettling eye, lives in a brain-shaped observatory where she narrowly avoids being brained by a gorgeous, creaking orrery. The landscape features carnivorous hillocks, and the heroine's cute pet is a demented furball with mad yellow eyes, more teeth than it knows what to do with and a noisy line in emotional blackmail.

Personal highlights include the Skeksis general's lofty acknowledgement of his sycophants' applause during the opening duel; Kira's demonstration of the difference between Gelfling boys and Gelfling girls; just about everything that Aughra says and does; and a riotous Skeksis banquet where the local equivalent of wafer-thin mints are sent scuttling along the table while the diners merrily club them into oblivion. A more serious virtue lies in the ending, which omits the Lord of the Rings-standard meritorious genocide in favour of something a bit more interesting and a good deal more enlightened.


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