Let me put that a little more elegantly. Until a few years ago, I had always considered myself to be a lover of Muppets – which, when I was little, meant watching the same eight episodes and two movies and listening to the same three records over and over and over again. Oh, and being able to answer the “I used to love those two old guys in the balcony! What were their names again?” question. In blissful ignorance of any realms beyond this basic Muppet diet, I quietly went about my childhood.
Then in 2002, I fell in with the ultra-informed, hyper-detail-oriented, fabulously geeky online Muppet fan community, and discovered that I had much to learn.”You haven’t seen Emmet Otter?” “You haven’t seen Christmas Eve on Sesame Street?””You’ve never heard of Esskay Meats?”
No, no, and no. In a way, it made discovering some of these productions as an adult uniquely satisfying. Wrapping myself in a blanket two summers ago and cheering as I watched David Bowie dancing with goblins for the first time might not have given me the same fuzzy feeling, had this scene sent me running to hide under the covers in 1986.
So when Ryan suggested that we Brooklyn-dwelling Tough Pigs hold a viewing of The Dark Crystal and subsequently each write a review for the website – myself as a first-time viewer, and Ryan and Joe having not watched the flick in years – I agreed. Perhaps my innocence would serve as an advantage, inoculating me against the debilitating boredom I’d heard had turned off so many young Muppet fans during their first DC viewing.
And so we begin. I had hoped to witness The Dark Crystal‘s famed intricate designs and stunning visuals within the first few minutes of the film, but judging by the barren landscape echoing every so often with dull thunder, it was not to be.
The narrator, by way of introduction, chats about death for awhile. His monotonous drone, as the scene switches over from the bland desert to the castle interior where a gaggle of wrinkly, uninviting Skeksis shoot lasers at each other with their eyes (which was pretty much all I could gather from the opening scenes until I re-watched the beginning) goes something like this:
“Long ago, there was some sort of land before time. Then somebody shattered a mirror, and two species emerged. Note this bunch’s harsh, twisted bodies, and their harsh, twisted souls, and also their gruesome, off-putting facial features. Their species is dying; their emperor lies dying; their land lies dying. Oh, and there are only ten of this other species, which is also dying. Their dying emperor is dying. Would you like to hear any more about death? Because I could go on for hours.”
Thanks, narrator. You’ve adequately prepared me not to root for anyone in this movie, with the possible exception of Fizzgig and Podlings. Maybe Kira, depending on the day. But as long as folks over two feet tall are the ones kicking the bucket, I’m not really sure where the intrigue comes in. In his definitive work The Dark Crystal vs. Entertainment, Danny already covered the lack of dialogue in the first five minutes, but neglected to enumerate the dry mentions of death (seven).
The movie tries its best to pique my interest — to throw in little tidbits that would engage someone with a longer attention span than mine. We’ve got the Mystics lifting their weary heads to numbly chant for their savior, which leads those of us watching at home to break into “Twist and Shout.”To restore our interest, the scenes cut back to the Mystics every so often, doddering along towards the castle. At about a dozen yards an hour, no wonder they’re dying out. They can barely be bothered to turn their heads when one of them up and vanishes. Ho-hum, they seem to say, as they glance over and bumble on.
We see much more of the clannish Skeksis, shouting and whimpering and shouting that they hate each other’s whimpers, at times almost suggesting comic relief, but never quite getting there — what with their blind adherence to archaic rules and bellowing hearty slogans like “Death to Gelflings!” and “TRIAL BY STONE!” They also harbor at least a couple of mysteries, namely: how do such spindly creatures carry around so much paraphernalia? Does the “TRIAL BY STONE!” scene make anyone else think of The Emperor’s New Clothes? Why do we have to watch their emperor disintegrate, when the Mystic emperor had the decency to just dematerialize? Will I ever get the Chamberlain’s voice out of my head? Please, yes, pleeeease?
About a half an hour in, I’m relieved to see a swamp, an environment that I know the makers of this movie can capably handle. They follow through, too, throwing in lots of the unexpected tidbits that make The Dark Crystal so famously visually captivating and sending me into Johnny Hart mode: trees got legs! Cave got jaws! Rocks and reeds… er, sentient!
In fact, until we come back around to discussing the Prophecy and the Great Conjunction and Journeys and other things that ought to begin with Capital Letters, I find a number of elements to enjoy. We’ve got a peaceful boat shot, seen over bulrushes and set to lulling music. Even the Skeksis interjecting with their messy feast (dessert got legs!) makes them appear deliciously villainous as they gobble down roast Nebrie.
Then there’s the happenin’ Podling party, featuring drinkers and dancers and banjo players and a hyperactive little red-haired Podling girl interrupting conversations. The scene also features Jen attempting to speak Podling, which could have made for a cute little comedic moment to exploit.But nothing comes of it, and soon we’re back to Capital Letter Events.
Let’s discuss the hero, (as briefly as possible) before we wrap up. What do we know about Jen, other than the anomaly of his bizarre nomenclature? Actually, no. Let’s address this whole gender business right now. As Danny has previously mentioned, the gender politics here are more than a little skewed.
Kira and Aughra are the enigmatic, almost-otherworldly-in-their-
affinity-with-nature, vaguely sympathetic horned/winged beings. The note I scribbled about Aughra as soon as she appeared, for all her oddly placed vocal emphases, was “At least she’s got personality.” (The one I scribbled when Kira glided off the cliff was “Girl got wings!”)
Jen is a wimpy male specimen with a girl’s name, raised by the leader of the Mystics and yet completely unaware of all things mystical (particularly the prophecy which everyone seems to agree pertains to him), except for that one time when he remembers something about having a bath.
As some astute devotees of the forum discussion following Ryan’s Dark Crystal post may already have noted, I postulate that Jen is, in fact, a Disney Princess. No one denies that Gelflings are soft-spoken and pretty — but not so pretty as to be sexually threatening, which would damage their marketability — and surrounded by fantastical beasts and scenery. Much of the adventure simply happens to Jen without any interference from him as he meanders about the set, waiting for inspiration to come to his rescue. Although his character has no distinguishing characteristics beyond general mousiness, someone sees fit to hand him an enchanted crystal shard and make us watch a movie about it. And at the end of the movie, Jen waves the shard around and hey presto! All the UrSkeks have changed into white gowns.
Every time my media-saturated brain has witnessed another bumbling antihero made great by circumstances forcing him to rise to the occasion, I’ve had a character to watch. Jen is pleasant enough to look at; the engineering behind his design makes the casual viewer scratch a head or two.But he doesn’t grow from a coward or a pickpocket into a bold or cunning hero. He starts out wide-eyed, and he remains wide-eyed until the end of the movie. For a split second he sounds brave as he and Kira progress towards the castle, but only because Kira utters an uncharacteristic line about being inexplicably afraid. Even his mistake of bailing from Aughra’s lair without rescuing her doesn’t teach him any lessons; Aughra lives anyway, and so does Jen’s naivete.
Visuals: mostly intriguing, except when the species is too hideous to be redeemed even by novel design.
Plot: I think it had something to do with draining the viewer’s living essence, a la Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus.
The two females: mostly acceptable to watch.
Males (everyone else): either a wussy flautist, or a grotesque, Skeletor-like mass with a potentially unbearably grating voice, or a ponderous, plodding brontosaur.
This Bad Muppet Fan awards The Dark Crystal a rating of half an UrSkek (but I won’t tell you which half, or out of how many.) If the sequel features more Podling parties or Fizzgig tantrums, though, I’m in.
Agree? Disagree? Nebrie undercooked? Click here to discuss this article on the Tough Pigs forum.