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Mold, broken – The Dark Crystal

May 7, 2015

Dark Crystal comic cover

The don’t make them like that anymore. This is one of the oldest clichés in the movie world, so ancient it almost stretches back to the beginning of the motion picture industry, when the business was measured in years, not in decades. It’s used to wistfully harken to a somewhat fuzzy film paradise of yore, when movies were better, where the glow of nostalgia now infuses everything with a patina of quality that the cold, harsh realities of the present can never ever reproduce. And, like all clichés, there often isn’t a lot of truth to it. Movies are movies, always have been, good and bad have been constant parts of the equation, and there really isn’t a proverbial, monolithic “they” doing anything wrong. This is more empty psychological yearning than genuine commentary.

But.

But there are rare films that are the very embodiment of those words. And when you’re talking about a richly conceived fantasy epic starring puppets that brought together the fertile minds behind Kermit the Frog and a little movie called Star Wars, they seem more than applicable.

The Dark Crystal, ladies and gentlemen. They don’t make them like that anymore.

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The Dark Crystal is a true gem, pun intended, a one of a kind masterpiece that still to this day represents an apex of practical creativity. It wasn’t a cartoon, it had not a single human onscreen. It was a film made for all ages, but before family friendly movies felt the need to soften their edges for children, and thus wasn’t afraid to scare the living bejesus out of them. Helmed by a brilliant triumvirate of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Gary Kurtz (who many credit with the best of the original Star Wars trilogy), it took designs from noted fantasy illustrator Brian Froud and wove them into one of the most unusual celluloid tapestries that we’ve ever seen. It was your standard quest formula, with a youngster, Jen, dispatched to save the world, along the way meeting a love interest, Kira, and assorted denizens of this strange place — but this universe went so far beyond that framework. Aughra, with her leathery skin, whiskers, missing eye and sagging boobs. The evil Skeksis — God, the Skeksis. The Chamberlain. The hulking Garthim. The Landstriders, which looked like moths spliced with giraffes and stilts. Fizzgig.

And they were all alchemied from cloth and rubber.

Re-watching this Muppet tale in a new millennium, it’s like an echo from some tragically lost civilization, one where a term like “originality” wasn’t a foreign concept. Yes, The Dark Crystal utilized well-worn archetypes, but the execution had an unmatched flair. Yes, the music was full of the swelling strings that were a trademark of this era, but Trevor Jones’s score was nevertheless stellar, with beats all its own. (The track from the Podling party has long been stored on my mp3 player of choice.) Yes, some of the puppetry didn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but my God, you were so swept away by it, who the hell cared? (Though, to be honest, Jen’s close resemblance to the latter stages of Michael Jackson’s metamorphosis is more than a little distracting.) This whole early 1980s panorama now feels like a Golden Age for film fantasy, before CGI plasticized everything. Even failures like Dune were at least glorious failures, and have a charm that’s utterly lacking in the current Cineplex crop. And though it got mixed reviews upon its initial release, The Dark Crystal was no failure.

For the great creative triumph of the film, you have to look no further than the villains: as they were labeled in the opening narration, “the cruel Skeksis.” Combining animatronics and puppetry, they were total three-dimensional living things, and terrifying for us kids back then. As an adult one can now see the humor in them, the idiosyncrasies that differentiate one from another and stand as Exhibit A of the thorough realization of this fictional ecosystem — the dinner scene is a fine example. But they still carry with them subconscious cues that generate primal aversion even in those of us who are all growed up. Their vulture profiles drag up the caveman in us; no one wants to be around carrion birds and the rotting death they signify. When a dilapidated Skeksi was part of a Jim Henson Smithsonian display a number of years ago, I approached it slowly and carefully.

Since this is mainly a comic book blog, a few words about the sequential art translation of the movie, penned by David Anthony Kraft and with art by Bert Blevins and Vince Colletta. The two-part Marvel adaptation (also published as a magazine-sized Super Special) was a faithful retelling of the story, hitting all the narrative beats leading up to the Great Conjunction. That said, nothing could ever replicate the aesthetics of Froud’s designs and the set, prop, and creature wizardry. Take this early gathering of the Skeksis, most of whom look jaundiced, at the deathbed of their emperor (and please note that their names are given here, not just their positions):

Dark Crystal Skeksis

The pee-yellow coloring also shifts over to Aughra’s orrery, one of the more dazzling Rube Goldberg contraptions to ever grace a movie screen (though the detail is quite good):

Dark Crystal Aughra Orrery

As with all adaptations, the script sometimes gets a bit jarring with how verbose it has to be — or how verbose it feels it has to be — to get the point across sans the benefit of moving images. Remember the Podlings, the cute little Fraggle Rockish people who adopted Jen’s friend Kira, were turned into zombie slaves by the Skeksis and threw the bitchingest parties? They speak English in the comic, negating a dash of their cuteness — though the party still looks like a hell of a good time:

Dark Crystal Jen Kira podlings

Bottom line: The comic is a nice artifact of Dark Crystal fandom, but if you’re going for sheer nostalgic bliss, the read-along album was/is better.

I sometimes wonder how The Dark Crystal plays with young audiences of the 21st century. Are they enthralled like I was when my now rapidly advancing age was still measured in single digits? Or are children weaned on iPhones and tablets jaded as soon as they rocket out of the womb and thus unable to lose themselves in anything that isn’t bright primary colors and 3D? I’m terrified of the latter, and it’s something that would make me want to take a header off my balcony. Jen, Kira and their Skeksis foes may represent a pinnacle, but that it may be a somewhat forgotten pinnacle, one that not only might no longer be appreciated, but can no longer be appreciated, should make us all a bit sad. And what movies of today will lead us to wonder why they don’t make them like that anymore?

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