Jim Henson was not only a great puppeteer, who created The Muppets, but also an innovator in puppetry. He created new things in puppetry that nobody has ever seen before on both television and film. He was like the Walt Disney of puppetry. He was also a great filmmaker, who had many ideas even until the day he died. However, people tend to forget how great of a filmmaker he was. I think his most underrated work is the 1982 fantasy puppet film, The Dark Crystal. Now I did briefly talk about this film in my article about The Muppets, but I would like to go into greater detail about this movie. So, let's take a look.
Before I talk about the film, I'd like to talk about how I discovered it. Since I was ten, I heard of Jim Henson and I heard he made a film called The Dark Crystal. However, I never saw it. I didn't know anything about the movie, I just knew he directed it, along with Frank Oz and they were both involved with The Muppets. That's all I knew. Well, when I was 17 I finally saw the film and I just loved it. Now I'm 20 and I still love the film.
The idea for The Dark Crystal was thought of by Henson in 1977. He had thought of story and for a while was making notes and sketches. Then he found the work of British illustrator Brian Froud. When he saw his work he loved it and decided it would be the right kind of design for this particular idea.
Once Froud was hired for the project, Henson got his team to build some of the characters to see how they would operate as puppets. They would record each test on video tape, take a look at it and would start all over again. It was a back and fourth process for a year and a half. Finally, Henson had Muppet Show writer, David Odell write the screenplay to his idea. With a script set up, creatures designed, production was ready to begin.
The film would be directed by Jim Henson and his frequent collaborator Frank Oz. Originally, Henson was going to direct it himself, but he felt that his weaknesses were Oz's strengths and vice versa. So, Henson asked Oz to direct it with him. At first Oz didn't want to do it, feeling that Henson could do it himself. However, Henson convinced him. The producer of the film would be Gary Kurtz, who also produced Star Wars and American Graffiti. Filming would take place at Elstree Studios in England.
The creatures themselves would elaborate puppets, known as animatronics. They were worked in different ways. For example, the main characters known as Gelflings would hand-rod puppets. Which means that the body and head were worked by hands, but the arms and hands were worked by rods going from the elbow down to a puppeteer who would move these rods to give movement. The rods also had little cable controls that would be pulled and the fingers would move. There were also two more puppeteers below these characters with cable controls to give additional facial movements such the eyes and ears. For the creatures known as Mystics. They were the most difficult to operate, mainly due to the stance of the character. Whoever performed the Mystics had to not only be a good puppeteer but also be able to work with their body. So, people such mimes, dancers, stilt walkers or anyone that worked with their body, came to perform these characters. They had perform on their haunches, with their hand extended to the head to give head and mouth movement. They would use their remaining hand to perform one of the hands of the creature. Also, because this creature had more than two arms, additional puppeteers would operate the arms from above by strings, almost like a marionette. Also, the facial features of the characters were radio controlled off camera by other performers. Finally, to perform another race of creatures known as Skeksis took four puppeteers. One performer was inside the character operating the head and mouth and use their remaining hand to operate one of the hands, similar to how Big Bird is operated. Then, three more performers were below the character with cable controls operating the remaining hand and some facial features. There were additional types of creatures and puppets, but these are the main ones.
The performers including mainly of the original Muppeteers from Henson's company. Henson himself performed the main character as well as other characters. Frank Oz performed one of the Skeksis as well some other creatures. Then performers such as DaveGoelz, Louise Gold, Steve Whitmire and Jerry Nelson also performed characters on the film. However, voice actors later came in to do perform the voices of the characters.
As a result we have a film about a thousand year old crystal that had a piece broken off. This started a war between race of creatures: the gentle Mystics and the evil Skeksis. The Skeksis hold the crystal in their castle and plan to take over their world once the three suns come together and give them the power from the crystal. Meanwhile, a Gelfling, named Jen, lives with the Mystics who raised him. Now, by the order of his master, he has to go on a quest to find the missing piece of the dark crystal and restore it to bring piece back to his world, but he must do it before the three suns come together and the Skeksis take control.
In total, the film cost $15 million to make. It was billed as having all puppets and no humans. It was released on December 17, 1982 and did fairly well at the box office taking in $40 million. It also did fairly well with critics. Although it did well, there was criticism from critics and audiences, such as the dark nature of the film and the fact that it was all puppets and no humans. It even won several awards, such as a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Film. Even in years to come, it had a cult following.
Eventually, sequel talks started to happen. Henson always denied a sequel though. Instead, he directed another fantasy film, Labyrinth, which didn't do well at the box office or with critics, but it also had a cult following and has become more popular than The Dark Crystal, due to it having a lighter comedy feel to it. Henson had more ideas, but he died in 1990 and his ideas weren't produced. Now for several years, a talk of a sequel started come about again called, The Power of The Dark Crystal. Finally, in 2010, the sequel has become official. Director Genndy Tartakovsky is set to direct the film. According to him, the film will use puppets and animatronics, as well as CGI backgrounds. He also said the Brian Froud will be back as the designer for the project. The Jim Henson Company has also confirmed this.
The Dark Crystal is a classic film. It's not just a classic retro film, but it's a classic among all films, in my opinion. It's just so beautiful to look at it and the puppetry and story are just brilliant. I love the story is about good and evil, but underneath all that is a story that involves nature, race and destiny. Also, the score by Trevor Jones is just fantastic. I also love the fact that it's all puppetry. That's a pretty rare thing to see an all puppet film, like we see an all animated film. I think had Jim Henson still been alive he would've made all puppet films like this. He was talented as a filmmaker. It could've done so much more for puppetry and maybe make it a genre like animation is it's own genre. In fact, I do believe that puppetry should be a genre, because it's a great art form that's been around for ages. It's not just for kids, like many would think. The Dark Crystal proved that with it's serious story and complex puppetry. It's a groundbreaking film that should've been more reorganized. I really think it should've won an Academy Award for best visual effects or even have the academy create an award for puppetry, just like how Best Make-up was created in 1981 for American Werewolf in London. It's a shame that people don't like the film for it's dark nature. I think everyone, especially kids could use a dark story once in a while and be exposed to the art of puppetry and just stick to the standard happy live action film. It's also a shame that Labyrinth is more popular. Don't get me wrong, I like Labyrinth, but it just doesn't compare to The Dark Crystal. It's a much better film, in my opinion. All in all, I love The Dark Crystal and it's one of my favorite films of all time.