The Dark Crystal: Now and Ages Past

I never realised it at the time, but looking back, it seems to me that there was a lot in 1980s cinema that was new. From the ground-breaking motion-controlled models of Return of the Jedi to the far-ahead-of-its-time computer generated effects of Tron, this was a decade that was reinventing what was thought possible on the silver screen. In the middle of all this was Jim Henson, taking puppetry – one of the oldest forms of storytelling known to mankind – and pushing it to the limits of what was possible at the time. Having started as part of Sesame Street, Henson rose to fame by perfecting a simple but revolutionary mixture of glove puppet and rod puppet in The Muppet Show. Aimed at an all-ages audience, The Muppets towered over previous children’s puppet series by giving its cast of eccentric animals, caricatures and things very relatable human personalities, making it surprisingly easy to forget you were even watching a puppet.

Although The Dark Crystal was conceived as early as 1975, the universal success of Muppeteer Frank Oz’s performance as Yoda in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back proved that puppets could be used as effective dramatic characters, undoubtedly making it easier for Jim Henson to get his project off the ground. When he was unable to find backing for The Muppet Show in his native United States in 1976, Henson had turned to famously risk-taking media mogul Sir Lew Grade, and it was Grade’s ITC Pictures that initially financed this ground-breaking film, though the company was bought out before it was released, causing no end of trouble. Of course, The Dark Crystal was far from being the world’s first full-length puppet feature, with movies from Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) to Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) bringing differing classical forms of puppetry to the big screen, but it is – in every sense of the word – unique.

I remember going to see The Dark Crystal on the big screen in 1982 and being completely blown away by it; this was light years beyond the Muppets – even in their technically improved form seen in such films as The Muppet Movie! I don’t know what it was about me as a kid, but I was fascinated with the things that people made for movies; be they props, costumes, models, sets and – of course – puppets. ‘Making of’ shows were all over TV at that time, with every studio keen to show off its burgeoning SFX capabilities. The ITV kids’ show Clapperboard frequently showed behind the scenes material from big budget movies, especially since Star Wars has started a trend of shooting big effects movies in the UK at Pinewood, and I remember seeing a Dark Crystal special on that show.

But knowing that beneath every Gelfling or Skeksis was a sweaty Californian did not ruin the magic of The Dark Crystal for me. Even at age 12, I was able to suspend disbelief like flicking a light switch; perhaps it was easier for those of us brought up on a diet of Doctor Who spacecraft made from hair dryers. The storytelling in The Dark Crystal captivated me. I remember my mother buying me the beautiful The Story of the Dark Crystal by Donna Bass; these kind of movie storybooks were common in the 80s, but they were usually just a load of photos from the movie accompanying a simplified version of the story, but in The Tale of the Dark Crystal artist Bruce McNally (an employee of the Jim Henson Company) took Brian Froud’s amazing designs for the film and crafted them into an exquisite storybook. It remains one of the finest of the 80s movie storybooks and somewhere in a dusty old box of cassette tapes there may still remain a recording of 12-year old me reading the story into a tape recorder.

Unlike most films, The Dark Crystal had to rely on its visuals and its storytelling to attract an audience, because there were no famous faces on display. Perhaps the most well-known name in the cast is Billie Whitelaw as Aughra, but you wouldn’t even know it was her until you saw her name on the end credits. The lead characters of Jen and Kira are played by Stephen Garlick (best known to Doctor Who fans as Turlough’s friend ‘Piggy’ in Mawdryn Undead) and actress-turned-comedian-turned-actress Lisa Maxwell. Although Maxwell went on to be quite a well known face in Britain from appearances on The Les Dennis Laughter Show (and her own short-lived sketch show), both were virtually unknown in 1982 and unlikely to be names recognisable to a UK audience, let alone an American one!

But despite its lack of big-name appeal and a late-in-the-day studio upheaval that caused Jim Henson to use his own money to finance the film’s completion, The Dark Crystal was a medium box-office success and a significant artistic achievement. The combination of Brian Froud’s incredible concept design, Jim Henson’s outstanding puppetry and Trevor Jones’ vastly under-appreciated score made for a film that was unlike anything that had been seen before or since on the big screen. Any box-office shortcomings were swept aside by its popularity on rental VHS and subsequently on sell-through VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray, earning The Dark Crystal a well-deserved cult following. Fans awaited any news of a sequel with a mixture of anticipation and dread – anticipation because any chance to visit the world of Thra again would be welcome, and dread because surely no-one in the 21st century would cough up the money to make it in its original puppet-driven format. Surely.

Enter Netflix, the company that started out renting DVDs by post and ended up as the global market-leader for quality original content. They initially showed an interest in reviving The Dark Crystal as a CG cartoon, but when a test reel was made featuring a CG Gelfling interacting with a puppeteered Skeksis, they realised very quickly that the physical prop conveyed the magic of the original film in a way that the computer generated elements never could. For the 10-part series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the original skills of the Henson Organisation (sadly long-since deprived of its creator) would be called into play, using techniques very similar to those deployed on the original film, with the occasional CGI tweak. It was a prudent decision on the part of Netflix, which you can see for yourself by watching The Crystal Calls, the full-length ‘making of’ feature for the new series, which shows the test footage. The CG is okay, but it’s rather Disneyfied and it doesn’t really stand out in the marketplace the way the work of the Henson Organisation does.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a prequel to the original movie, incorporating elements from J.J. Llewellyn and Brian Froud’s The World of the Dark Crystal and J.M. Lee’s series of Young Adult novels to tell the story of how the Skeksis came to be degenerate dictators that we all know and love (hate). It doesn’t go back as far as the point where the Crystal of Life first cracked, but rather starts at a time when the Skeksis live as benevolent rulers over the many Gelfling tribes of the planet Thra; but the damage to the crystal has triggered ‘the Darkening’ – a wave of malevolence that spreads through the land like an infectious disease, with the Skeksis’ proximity to the crystal making them its first victims. It’s a storyline that’s very much in keeping with the style of the original Dark Crystal and there’s little of the kind of ret-conning that so irritates fans.

The wonderful thing about the originally movie is that it’s totally timeless; it’s set in a completely separate world to our own and there’s nothing on display to mark it out as a product of the 80s. If you watch Age of Resistance immediately followed by The Dark Crystal (as I just did), there’s nothing at all to suggest they weren’t made together, rather than almost 4 decades apart! There is nothing I loathe more in a fantasy world than when it references pop-culture; I’ve always hated the instance in Return of the Jedi when Chewbacca does a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yodel, because I’m immediately snapped out of a galaxy far, far away and back into our own dreary world. There are no such indulgences in The Dark Crystal, either old or new, so it is an entirely self-contained universe, safe from dated haircuts, ageing actors and the curse of sly pop-culture winks.

Whereas there are only two surviving Gelflings in The Dark Crystal, in Age of Resistance they are still the most populous species on the planet Thra, with several matriarchal tribes living (mostly) in harmony under the (almost) benevolent guidance of the Skeksis. There are also the Podlings who, although a less advances species, seem to have a lot more innocent, childlike fun than anyone else. But when the long-lived Skeksis are forced to confront their own eventual mortality and realise that they can stave off death by draining the vital life energy from innocent Gelflings, their true colours show through – and that colour is the strange purple that represents the Darkening. As with all dictatorships, of course, there are those who initially refuse to accept that the Skeksis have turned evil and this represents a lot of conflict before the true resistance can begin.

If the original Dark Crystal lacked star names in its voice cast, this prequel series more than makes up for it, with Taron Egerton in the lead role as Rian with Anya Taylor-Joy as Brea alongside a whole firmament of big screen stars: Mark Hamill, Helena Bonham-Carter, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jason Isaacs, Eddie Izzard, Awkwafina, Alicia Vikanda, Harvey Fierstein, Toby Jones to name but a few. None of the original voice cast return (although some of the puppeteers are the same) but Donna Kimball as Aughra and Simon Pegg as the Chamberlain are flawless at recreating the characters originated by sadly departed Billie Whitelaw and Barry Dennen. There are no star turns here and, to be honest, if you didn’t see the names of any of the above actors on the end credits, you’d probably never know that it was them – which also helps to buoy up the fantasy.

Bringing back a well-loved franchise after so long a time can be a risky business and there’s a right and a wrong day to do it. I’m sure we’ve all seen remakes like Clash of the Titans that snidely cast aside the things that we all loved about the original material and leave us feeling ‘nope, not for me’ – that’s the wrong way to do it. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is the right way to do it; it embraces everything that the original audience loved about The Dark Crystal in 1982 and presents it in a way that is modern, but at the same time 100% representative of the source material. It expands rather than reinvents and keeps that same family-friendly, but slightly nightmarish, quality that made The Dark Crystal so great. Rarely have I seen the resurgence of something from my childhood that fills me with so much glee.

Unfortunately, this kind of artistry comes at a significant financial cost and, to date, Netflix have not renewed The Dark Crystal for a second series. There has been talk of them going back to the old CGI idea (which is cheaper) but I think that would be a retrograde step. To be perfectly honest, if they can’t carry on in the same manner that Jim Henson introduced back in 1982, I’d rather they left the story where it stands than carry on in some reduced capacity. The original motion picture of The Dark Crystal has stood firm and true as an artistic and storytelling triumph for almost 4 decades and I see no reason why The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance could not go on to be equally beloved.

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