Dir. Jim Henson and Frank Oz
(1982, PG, 93 min)
The story of The Dark Crystal is a simple quest based on a MacGuffin: a young man comes of age and must reattach a crystal fragment to the titular object in order to restore order to the universe. The specific details of the mythology are a bit knotty, involving a schism between the evil Skeksis and the benevolent Mystics, and an alignment of three suns that marks the deadline for the quest. But it seems to be more an experiment for co-director Jim Henson, who is better known as the creator of the Muppets and here expands his repertoire with darker, more elaborate, more lifelike creatures – not felt-and-foam creations like Kermit and Miss Piggy, but subtler characters with more realistic textures and movements. The story they’re in is just the clothesline for puppetry and production design.
In that sense the film succeeds, though it’s curious that the film’s most poorly created character happens to be its protagonist. Jen (performed by Henson and Kiran Shah and voiced by Stephen Garlick) is a Gelfling who believes he is the last of his kind – the Skeksis wiped out his race to circumvent a prophecy – until he meets another, Kira (performed by Kathryn Mullen and voiced by Lisa Maxwell). It’s lucky there are only two left in existence, or otherwise Henson might have wasted his time making more of them. While various other creatures and races are visually interesting – the decaying, birdlike Skeksis; the wise, hunched Mystics – the Gelflings are blank-eyed and emotionless, and the voice performers match them for blandness. They’re the most human-looking of the creatures, which is perhaps why their lack of expression and unconvincing movements are so distracting.
It’s a crucial shortcoming. The film is impressively designed, but it’s difficult to connect with Jen or care about his journey. Another film was released in 1982 with a puppet for a main character – E.T., maybe you’ve heard of it. The alien in that film didn’t look remotely human, but we cared about it a lot more than we care about the Gelflings. Henson was a groundbreaking puppeteer and a talented director (he was nominated for an Oscar for the playfully abstract short film Time Piece in 1966), but in this film he neglected to write meaningful personalities or motivations for his main characters. They must save the world. Why must they? Because the screenplay told them to.