Thursday, 18 November 2010

Jim Henson & Frank Oz's 'The Dark Crystal', 1982

The Dark Crystal is a landmark in film making as it was the very first fully animatronic feature length film and was directed by none other than perhaps the biggest name in puppetry, Jim Henson whose inspiration came from illustrator Brian Froud, most prominently known for his whimsical drawings of creatures such as faeries and goblins.

The film is a plethora of living, thriving creatures and landscapes that the audience can easily forget are puppets or matte paintings.  Kenneth B.Kidd describes Jim Henson and Brian Froud's intention for the production design as them setting "out to create an entirely new world with an ecology all its own for this 1982 film. "I remember" recalls Froud, "that in my earliest discussions with Jim Henson, we talked of a pantheistic world in which mountains sang to one another and forests were alive".  The audience are presented with exactly that, a living, breathing world of vibrant and fantastical creatures, plants and humanoids.  The director, Henson, and production designer, Froud, not only wanted to portray a beautiful world but attach an underlying contextual message. Kidd reveals that "Henson was so fascinated with ecology that in developing The Dark Crystal he went to extreme lengths to understand the world in which his characters would interact.  Couched in this ecological masterpiece is the issue of environmental ethics, of seeing environmental harmony and protection as good and environmental pillaging and oppression as bad."  It is this extreme attention to detail that allows something so visually encapsulating to not only pull the audience in to its aesthetics but guide them along with the imagery and narrative to learn that nature and all its bountiful life are good and those that would seek to destroy and ravage it as bad.

The target of the audience's disdain are the villainous and decrepit Skeksis, "the epitome of evil, pillaging the world for its resources for their uses, including draining the life force from other order to prolong their own lives".  For every one of these Skeksis is their binary opposite, known as the Mystics, a race of nature loving, humble creatures that draw their power from nature.  Not only are these characters contrasting when it comes to their actions but their political context as well.  The Skeksis are bent on using the non-renewable natural resources no matter the cost to the environment and those living in it, whereas the Mystics are presenting the need to preserve these resources and use renewable ones that don't ravage the land and maintain a natural balance.  Despite their interesting contextual relevance, the Skeksis are given much more screen time then the Mystics.  Their decaying features and skeletal hands combined with their huge silhouettes from their dirty regalia creates an immediate response of repulsion from the audience.  Not only are they visually disturbing but they seem to go out of their way to inflict pain on others and at one point the audience sees them suck the life out of a helpless podling.  Elycia Arendt reveals that: "According to the production designer of the film Brian Froud "[a]s a finished product, I found The Dark Crystal came across too heavy--it was too dark emotionally and visually". The Skeksis' support this interpreation because they are typically unpleasant and for a film that's been placed in the genre of  'children's film', are much too dark and monstrous.

Though the Skeksis are terrifying in appearance and nature, and could be seen as one of the reason's the film was so unsuccessful, the many other characters within the narrative are so visually stunning, from a production design perspective, they more than make up for it.  The central character name Jen is known as a 'Gelfling' which is much like a young elf might be portrayed.  Though he's central to the plot he isn't the most stimulating of characters. Kenneth Von Gunde reveals that "Henson discovered that while Jen was a central character around which everything else was constructed, he was "white-bread" pure - a boring goody-goody." Despite this, the many other jumping, galloping, roaring and flying creatures bring life to the film that more than makes up for Jen's "white-bread" portrayal.  James Robert Parish divulged that Brian Henson, Jim Henson's son, spoke of the procedure his father took when giving life to these creatures: " He would visualize what you could do with a puppet or a person in a costume before working on it.  The whole film is a series of experiments in hiding people in costumes, and creating movements that no one has ever seen before."  One example of a creature that moves in a way no audience member has ever seen before is the elegant and extraordinary Landstrider.  This animal is twice the height of the Gelfling riders and gallops on what should be incredibly clumsy legs stick-like legs.  Kenneth Von Gunden describes them as starting out as "Froud-inspired spiderlike creatures which moved by leaping. When Henson remembered that performer Robby Barnett could stiltwalk, he asked the young man to attempt to gallop on four stilts. When Barnett easily ran, Froud refined his original design, and the Landstriders were born."  This was a very intelligent decision as when the creatures are on film the viewer can hardly believe that people are inside them, a very cunning way to avoid the risk of clumsy, unrealistic movement that could have been a problem had they tried to control the creatures' externally.

The Dark Crystal was a wonderful achievement for the production designer and Jim Henson.  There's nothing like it and sadly there may never be, as this feature length, entirely human-less film, was a big financial disappointment at the box office.  Never has something so tangible come from something so whimsical.  Despite the weaknesses within some characters and perhaps in the plot it still lights a fire within the hearts of any viewers that grew up on similar Jim Henson films, such as Labyrinth, and inspires those who love something a little magical that there's more out there than just computer generated realism.


  1. just did a word count - you've got 1,000 words here - 1,000 good ones! This reads like a formal written assignment - you introduce your quotes well, you respond to them and, importantly, you arrive at a conclusion... pretty soon, Molly, you'll be writing degree level analysis and critique as a matter of habit.

  2. YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY! That's amazing, thank you!
    I wanted to put in a couple of footnotes too but I couldn't work out how to do it :#P