“The great conjunction is the end of the world! … Or the beginning.”
I’ll say right now that a little fright never harmed my adolescence so kudos to Jim Henson for sticking to his guns in bringing “family film” and potential nightmare inducing adventure The Dark Crystal to life. Anyone who spied upon Brian Froud’s creature design should have been aware of how dark the proceedings would turn out, but you can’t blame surprise either considering the Henson name in 1982 was only synonymous with those cute characters known as The Muppets. While an alien world of violent, vulture-like Skeksis and peaceful, monk-like Mystics was far from the public’s consciousness, it surely cemented Henson’s genius and his puppetry company’s boundless imagination as elite. The plot may mirror so many other fantastical hero journeys, but none had ever quite looked like this.
The opening narration is spoken in an ominous deep voice: a storybook introduction to an environment as harsh as it is beautiful. A thousand years had passed since the titular crystal—the machine behind all life on this world—was cracked. In the wake of such destruction the Skeksis and Mystics were born. The former took control of the castle as the latter went into self-exile to live their lives in quiet contemplation rather than power-hungry greed. Between them were two other races: the Pod People and the Gelflings. The Skeksis enslaved the first and wiped out the second to the brink of extinction thanks to a prophecy foretelling how a Gelfling would be their ruin. Somehow Jen (Stephen Garlick’s voice and Henson’s puppetry) survived.
Henson had been working on the tale’s blueprints for almost a decade, crafting a short story that screenwriter David Odell would later adapt into the film we know today. Jim and long-time collaborator Frank Oz took on the job of co-directors and with the help of Froud’s design and Jane Roberts’ New Age movement writings—known as the “Seth Material”—The Dark Crystal was born atop a land of rock inhabited by mysterious creatures. Almost everything onscreen is “alive” and frightful. Some rocks transform into monsters eating what has landed upon them and land-locked anemones flutter in the wind before scurrying for cover once Jen or his eventual companion Kira (Lisa Maxwell‘s voice and Kathyrn Mullen‘s puppetry) come near. It’s the Gelfling’s task to save them all.
When their three suns converge the Skeksis will become immortal to rule with an iron fist for eternity unless the Dark Crystal is made whole again. What’s great is that Jen hasn’t been groomed to fill the role of savior. The Mystics who raised him did so to keep him alive without tell of prophecies or crystal shards or even what happened to his species. Only when his father figure lays dying does he learn of his destiny and even then he has no clue where to begin. Luckily the wise seer known as Aughra (Billie Whitelaw‘s voice and Oz’s puppetry) has an esoteric sense of what’s coming. But when the Skeksis unleash their evil beetle-like foot soldiers known as the Garthim, Jen must rely on himself.
This is a wonderful revelation because Henson never forces a warrior upon us to stare at in awe. Jen is like us: innocent, afraid, and unsure of the future. But he has enough courage and pride to realize what will happen if he doesn’t do what the Mystics ask. He doesn’t question why it must be him because he knows there is no one else. So Jen stumbles and falls quite often. He risks being trapped under the spell of a Skeksis outcast known as the whimpering Chamberlain (Barry Dennen‘s voice and Oz’s puppetry) and must escape the Garthim more than once with the help of unknown creatures and a “flight or flight” mentality. What I love most about Jen is that he knows when he’s out-gunned.
We laugh at his countless moments of retreat while those who harbored him are killed or enslaved, but only until he reflects on the fact that it is his fault so much pain has been brought to others. It’s not really since the Skeksis are responsible for their own heinous actions and he didn’t ask to be born a Gelfling, but that guilt is a strong motivator to end the cycle of pain and suffering once and for all. Thankfully there are also stakes involved so that Jen can’t simply come to this realization and trudge forward. His companions—especially the whining, needy piranha dog fuzz ball called Fizzgig (Percy Edwards’ voice and Dave Goelz‘s puppetry)—sometimes leave him vulnerable and often put themselves in harm’s way too.
There’s no better kick in the pants than seeing loved ones die, though, and Henson knows it. He isn’t afraid to do what’s necessary for the story whether his young audience closes its eyes in fear or not. This is the point: a harkening back to Brothers Grimm fairy tales wherein evil exists as more than harmless adversary to be defeated. Evil delivers on its promise and destroys lives so an unlikely hero can rise from the ashes and say, “No more!” The Skeksis must be stopped and Jen will need a lot of luck to do so, but as long as he pushes forward there’ll always be a chance for success. That chance is enough to fuel revolutions and prove anything is possible if we only try.