The Dark Crystal (1982)
Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz

Artistic Value: * * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * *

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A thousand years in the past, a group of powerful entities split a magical crystal, hoping to learn from it, but each of them was instead divided into two individuals, one good and the other evil. The wicked creatures resulting from this experiment, the Skeksis, have since that time ruled over the world through terror and cruelty, but if Jen, the sole survivor of his race, the Gelflings, who were slaughtered by the Skeksis, can restore the crystal, he will be able to reunite the divided beings and heal all the lands they have wounded.

The Dark Crystal, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, is a lavish, gorgeous masterpiece distinguished by its being entirely performed either by puppets or actors in costumes so elaborate they are virtually indistinguishable from puppets.

David Froud's enchanting designs, which provide the inspiration for the film's sets, costumes, and puppets, not only make The Dark Crystal visually stunning but also make the world depicted in it one of cinema's most elaborate and best realized of fictional places. Its minutest details are brought to the screen by the film makers. There are, for instance, numerous scenes of the daily lives of the beings of The Dark Crystal's imaginary universe, some of which provide the movie with several of its quieter and more charming moments. Others, depicting the activities of the villains, are weirdly repulsive and completely captivating. The Skeksis are vile, cruel fiends, but they are so quirky and imaginatively conceived that they are among the most fascinating antagonists of cinema. They are absolutely entertaining to watch.

Despite such attention to the details of its fictional world, The Dark Crystal is well paced and never lags, remaining exciting and engaging throughout. The mood of each scene is further honed by the consistently evocative and frequently haunting score. Whether the viewer is being presented with a joyous feast, a moment of introspection, or a dangerous fight, his attention, thanks to the skill with which each scene is realized and related to those around it, is unlikely ever to wander.

One particularly interesting element of the movie is that while the Skeksis are epitomes of wickedness, each is only half a person, and the whole is neither entirely good nor entirely evil. In the end, the Skeksis are as much redeemed by Jen's quest as is the rest of the world. The viewer is, consequently, left not with a picture of a universe divided between those who are innately good and those who are innately evil, but with a vision of moral shades. Individuals may give in to their most vicious tendencies, which lead them to perform cruel actions, but even a person who does commit morally reprehensible actions is not himself wholly evil. Succumbing to such impulses is condemned in The Dark Crystal, and the consequences of selfish and malevolent actions are shown, but the film makes it clear that even such persons who do so are capable of transcending their deeds. When contrasted with the more usual tendency of film and literature to divide persons into the good and decent, with whom we are to identify, and the evil and wicked, against whom we are to fight, the vision of The Dark Crystal is especially appealing.

By making the viewer aware of some universal morality in which our own values are subsumed, the sophisticated and compassionate moral structure underpinning the world the film makers have invented assists the various other elements of the movie in evoking a sense of awe. Even if it did not provoke such a realization, however, the beauty of the film, and its depictions of strange worlds, terrible beings, and dreadful powers, would be more than sufficient to elicit poignant feelings of wonder.

Despite its real and considerable virtues, The Dark Crystal is, unfortunately, burdened by a number of irksome flaws. Several of the characters are gratingly adorable, and many of the vague mystical pronouncement made by wise characters are vacuous and trite. The movie's unique beauty makes these flaws more glaring than they would have been in some lesser work, and they do, consequently, detract from its quality.

The Dark Crystal, with its stunning beauty and profound magic, allows the moviegoer to marvel at a world beyond that of our ordinary experience. At the same time, the film's characters elicit from the viewer a variety of different emotions, such as compassion, fear, and repulsion. Consequently, whatever its flaws, the movie is a remarkable, enthralling achievement and demonstrates the effectiveness with which puppets can be employed. It is a shame they are so rarely used in either Western drama or cinema.

Review by Keith Allen

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