There was a time before the use of computer animation was the dominate way to create creatures and fantasy worlds. In the 1980s, Jim Henson was the man to see for creatures of any kind, and from the characters of Oz to the Ninja Turtles, pretty much any creature that wasn’t animated came from his company.
Directed by both Jim Henson and Frank Oz, “The Dark Crystal” features the most advanced animatronics of its day. Unlike “Labyrinth”, another of Jim Henson’s fantasy films featuring a large number of puppets, “The Dark Crystal” utilizes puppets exclusively; there are no people in this film whatsoever. It’s a bold choice, and I struggle to think of many feature length movies (beyond “Team America: World Police”) that has dared attempt such a feat.
The story begins with a lengthy narration explaining the history of the world which dates back 1000 years where a race known as the urSkeks cracked the crystal of truth turning it into the titular dark crystal. Doing so split the urSkeks into two separate races: the Mystics and the Skeksis. The Mystics are a friendly group who are in tune with the earth and use magic like chanting, while the Skeksis are a vile and grotesque gathering of slave masters who look like a cross between a lizard and a dead vulture.
There's a prophecy that a Gefling (an elf-like creature who looks like a cross between a Hobbit and one of those creepy goat puppets from “The Sound of Music”) will journey to the castle where the Skeksis reside and put a shard back into the crystal, thus destroying the Skeksis and bringing life and peace back to the world. The journey of a small unlikely hero carrying an object of great value to its origin may sound like the plot of “The Lord of the Rings”, but that’s only because it is.
Anyway, because of this, the Skeksis have spent years sending out their Garthim (giant metallic beetles) to capture Geflings so that they can be drained of their life essence and killed. Jen is one of the last Geflings. Raised by the Mystics, he's told that he's the one from the prophecy who will restore balance to the world, though will all the other Gelflings dead his competition is nonexistent. He sets out on his journey and meets all sorts of characters like Kira, a female Gelfing (who's considerably more useful than Jen), her furry pet called Fizzgig, and the traitorous Skeksis known as the Chamberlain.
The sets and creatures are beautiful to look at and meticulously detailed. It’s incredible the amount of work that must have gone into this film. Every creature has its own distinct mannerisms, is capable of expressing a surprising range of emotion, and each location differs from the last. There are some really great scenes such as when Jen travels to the hometown of Kira, who was raised by a silly looking race called Podlings who live deep in the forest inside of trees. The inside of their city resembles a giant tavern filled with music and dancing.
The story itself is interesting if familiar and the film looks great, but the biggest shortcoming of “The Dark Crystal” is the character depth. There just isn’t a whole lot of it. Jen is basically the same from the first scene to the last, which is a shame because he’s kind of bland. Had characterization been a bigger part of the story, this may have been a great film, but the way it is, it’s hard to care too much about the main characters.
For instance, Jen and Kira, aside from being male and female, are practically the same person. In the scene where they meet, she reaches out her hand to help him up and when they touch, they inadvertently fuse their memories together in a montage. This not only covers their separate back stories quickly, but melds them together making the two personalities pretty much indistinguishable. It’s unfortunate, because that’s really the only issue I had with this movie.
Aside from the story being a bit of a “Lord of the Rings” knockoff (though not quite to the extent of other ‘80s fantasies like “Willow”), it’s the lack of characterization that hurts this film the most. Though entertaining to look at, you may find yourself not too invested in the heroes by the end, and in a story about a hero’s journey, that’s a pretty big problem.