In 1982, audiences were mixed on Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, which was very much not in the same vein as The Muppets or Sesame Street. The strange, mystical film reveled in its fantasy setting, and in particular, its unique character design. One of the primary races in The Dark Crystal, the Skeksis, are massive, grotesque and wizened vulture-like creatures reminiscent of the inhabitants of Versailles—if those inhabitants were already dead. That was enough to spook parents looking for softer family-friendly fare in the ’80s, and perhaps rightfully so. And yet, revisiting the film in 2019 ahead of Netflix’s prequel series, it still feels bold.
The Dark Crystal was ahead of its time in a number of ways, both in its “puppets, but dark!” aesthetic as well as its outstanding use of animatronic arts. There are sequences within The Dark Crystal that make time for the unnamed, fascinating, totally bizarre creatures that inhabit the world of Thra. These moments aren’t tied to plot, only world-building—which is a luxury few fantasy properties feel they can afford. (If only they would try!)
It’s worth noting that something the The Dark Crystal does better than almost any other fantasy film is fully introducing a coherent world that’s not based on existing IP. A now rarely-used narrative device sets up the world of Thra and the origin of the central conflict: there is a life-giving crystal that was broken in two, giving rise to two opposing races. The aggressive Skeksis took over the throne while their counterparts, the gentle Mystics, retreated to the mountains. Caught up in the subsequent war was an elf-like race called Gelflings, all of whom have now been eradicated other than Jen (adopted by the Mystics) and—as we later come to find—Kira (adopted by the Podlings). Jen is also the one who has been chosen to find the shard to restore the crystal, bringing peace and balance to Thra. (That opening narration saves almost an entire act of exposition, and allows The Dark Crystal to have a hugely respectable 93-minute runtime).
Aside from a unique take on a familiar “chosen one” fantasy trope, where The Dark Crystal really shines is in its visual splendor. It’s clear how intricate and ornate these creatures are for casual Muppets fans as well as modern audiences. The design work—from the large-scale characters down to Fizzgig—creates an environment where there’s something intriguing to spot in every frame. Thra is a dying world that nevertheless feels fully alive because of the care that Henson, Gary Kurtz and Frank Oz put in to managing all of these extraordinary details. And yes, some of those details are indeed dark and quite scary, like a skeletal dying Skeksis who evaporates into dust before our eyes, or how haggard and pallid Kira (the true hero of this film, for a number of reasons) is made to look for the rest of her scenes after she’s had her essence partially drained by The Scientist. There’s a strange realism to the effects of life on these puppets, especially in how the poor agrarian Podlings (who are used as slaves by the Skeksis) are given clouded eyes and withered faces after having being drained of their life into a braindead state.
What’s also clear, when rewatching The Dark Crystal, is how easy it is to spot opportunities for the story’s expansion in this current media mania for franchise properties (even down to casual moments like Kira taking flight off a cliff. Jen exclaims, “you have wings! I don’t have wings.” She laughs, “of course not, you’re a boy.” Tell me more!) There is a full mythology to The Dark Crystal that is only briefly explored in the film, which is something that Netflix’s Age of Resistance series will be able to easily take advantage of. The mechanics of the split are easy enough to explain in a voiceover to start, but how it affected the land of Thra over the course of 1,000 years—including the prophesy that led to the eradication of all but two Gelflings—is something well-worth exploring more in depth, particularly when it comes to the fantastic, mostly nameless interactive flora and fauna of the world.
There are a few hallmarks of early ’80s filming that date the piece, although not always negatively (including Trevor Jones’ vibrant and synth-heavy score). Overall The Dark Crystal still holds up as a compelling story told through exceptional animatronic means. That’s another thing that Age of Resistance will be able to explore even further: the melding of puppetry and CG. The visceral nature of the film’s practical effects is one reason it feels timeless and not cringe-y because of ever-changing computer graphic abilities. Dark Crystal wove in live-action movements and stunt work with the puppetry, but (so far), Age of Resistance looks like it will smooth that out even more, giving the puppets (particularly the more humanoid Gelflings) more expressive abilities. Though we’ve grown used to films using CG to augment live-action—to the point where some sequences look more like a highly rendered videogame than anything with weight to it—the wonder achieved through practical effects can still be awe-inspiring.
The Dark Crystal is not The Muppet Show, nor was it intended to be. It’s even more grown up, something that has always held an appreciation of puppet arts back. Stories utilizing puppets (or as we in the U.S. tend to think of them, specifically Muppets) are not always just for kids. Animation has finally overcome this in the last decade, with critical acclaim being bestowed on a wide array of adult-oriented stories told through animated means, although the same really cannot be said for puppets. (Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders was a huge missed opportunity in this regard.) As The Dark Crystal continues to prove, fantasy makes a natural home for the medium, one that pushes the boundaries of the genre in new ways. May its prequel now continue to reconcile the perception of puppetry with complicated, compelling storytelling in the same way Jen once sought to bring unity to the crystal and its otherworldly beings himself.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance premieres Friday, August 30th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV