Set in a mythic world populated entirely by fictional races from Jim Henson’s Muppet workshop, The Dark Crystal is ambitious high fantasy with Tolkienesque aspirations and a vague George Lucas vibe that’s part Star Wars mysticism, part Willow blandness. (Curiously, Lucas had nothing to do with The Dark Crystal, though he did executive produce that other 1980s fantasy family film with a Muppety cast, Labyrinth.)
The Dark Crystal opens in a world blighted and in darkness ever since the mighty “Crystal of Truth” shattered a millennium earlier and a tiny shard was lost. Now the cruel, vulture-like “Skeksis” reign while the gentle, camel-faced “Mystics” live in exile.
Among the Mystics lives a young, elf-like “Gelfling” named Jen, a survivor of Skeksis persecution. When his Mystic master dies (with a Jedi-esque fadeout), Jen is sent on a quest to “heal” the the Crystal of Truth, now the Dark Crystal, and thus the world. Pursued by the monstrous beetle-like Garthim, agents of the Skeksis, Jen sets out to find the missing shard of the crystal and reunite it with the whole.
Imaginatively ambitious and often visually engaging, The Dark Crystal resolutely remains a distant, uninvolving experience. The filmmakers’ attention seems occupied by the technical challenges of bringing this fictional world to life; characters and emotions, even by the archetypal standards of high fantasy, never come to life, and the overarching mythology seems too self-consciously contrived rather than taking on a mythic reality of its own.
Jen is a placeholder in the hero role, the Skeksis political intrigues have nothing hanging on them, and the Mystics spend the film walking really slowly toward the final confrontation. One Skeksis wanders through the film voicing a suggestive high-pitched interjection that sounds like he’s thinking something more intriguing than anything that ever actually materializes onscreen.
Before long it becomes clear that the Mystics and Skeksis are linked somehow. Their small numbers parallel one another, and the Skeksis emperor dies at the same time as the Mystic who was the master of Jen. Later we see that to wound or kill a member of either species is to inflict the same injury on his opposite number. This theme builds to an overtly monistic finale in which good does not triumph over evil, but is instead merged with it in a sort of yin-yang balance of harmony.
It’s meant to seem transcendent, I guess, but it comes off kind of ho-hum. Perhaps destroying the One Ring and the power of Mordor, or even blowing up the Death Star and sending Darth Vader careening out into space, makes for more satisfying drama and mythopoeia than just smooshing Obi-Wan the Grey and Darth Saruman and all their ilk into a bunch of big glowy Spielberg aliens on their way back home, leaving Frodo Skywalker behind to do who knows what with the world he’s redeemed. Either way, The Dark Crystal comes off more like a film about the idea of an epic mythic fantasy than a persuasive example of the thing itself.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.