It’s Twelfth Night, so just time for some festive favourites. Well, Festive Muppetry.
This time, Jokerside takes a double-headed look at Jim Henson’s finest and most ambitious hours on the big screen. Modern fairy tales, all vision and little compromise, that bestrode children fantasy cinema in the 1980s… An astonishing three decades ago… Tomorrow, an Epiphany as Jokerside visits Labyrinth, but first 1982’s The Dark Crystal
AT A CASUAL GLANCE, IT’S EASY TO SLOT THE DARK CRYSTAL AND LABYRINTH INTO THAT PARTICULARLY OVERARCHING SET OF 80S FAMILY FANTASY FILMS. From Willow to Ladyhawke, films that still stretch across Western culture like The NeverEnding Story’s Nothing. While Jim Henson’s big screen masterpieces are separated by four years it’s also hard to avoid seeing The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth as two fantasy classics on one natural line of development, although there are no links in terms of story or myth. Following the human-free, straight and ominous myth creation of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth mixed Henson magic with humans and made the most of David Bowie to construct a musical around its fantastic story. Or the other way round, depending on the paving slab sliding goblin you talk to.
Undeniably, both films contribute some of the most stunning visuals of 1980s cinema, with almost every frame struggling to contain the ambition. While both are very different films, the most striking link between the two is the difficulty both experienced on release. But while one emerged belatedly to marked success, the other demoralised Henson with the result that he never directed a film again.
Off to the alternate dimension of the Goblin Kingdom tomorrow. But first the planet Thra, fittingly a planet of two sides…
The Dark Crystal (1982)
A myth forms
“He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.”
So said co-director Frank Oz about Jim Henson. And there’s no doubt about it, The Dark Crystal is a rather sombre affair. As Oz continued, Henson’s intent was to return to the darkness of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Building the concept from the mid- to late-1970s, the end result is an hour and a half of stunning scenery and stupendous scope, quite jaw-dropping in its realisation and (freed of humanity) timelessness. But in stretching the darkness of the material, or returning it, The Dark Crystal sometimes feels scenes were cut short to stop jokes naturally rolling out and ruining that Grimm intent.
“Another age, another time”
What’s more impressive than the impassioned darkness is how confidently The Dark Crystal throws itself into a mythology, heavily interpreting New Age philosophy and particularly Jane Roberts The Seth Material (still being produced at the time of the film’s release). Lining the crystal are astrological signs and throughout the film ensures the magick is linked to the heavens.
Unlike some other prominent fantasy films of the time, The Dark Crystal doesn’t paint a reality threatened with an impending threat so much as propel alien characters directly into a terrible situation. Not only must disbelief must be suspended for the meek protagonist to quickly embark on his crucial quest, but there is little to relate to. The tone and immense background is immediately set by an omniscient voice, the owner of which we don’t see until the end.
Those weighty words are brilliantly intoned and enunciated in a weighted British tone by Joseph O’Conor. He tells us of the cruel and gentle races, the Mystics and Skeksis, both whittled down to 10 in number. It’s the Skeksis we see first, during the opening titles, the reptilian, birdlike horrors – fixed unmoving in the light of the Dark Crystal. Continue reading ““Words that stay” – Celebrating The Dark Crystal”