Essays · Movies

The Bold Horror of ‘The Dark Crystal’

Who knew the guy behind The Muppets could make a movie so unsettling?
Radical Kids Movie Dark Crystal
By  · Published on February 10th, 2019

Jim Henson had a unique idea for a feature film. He had experimented with the collaboration of puppets and humans on previous movies and television shows, including the popular The Muppet Show. For the film The Dark Crystal, Henson moved away from the light stories that had defined much of his earlier works. He wanted to do something that was darker and complex as a fantasy feature comprising only puppets. In the spirit of Roald Dahl novels and Grimms’ Fairy Tales, The Dark Crystal is a harsh world full of magic, mystery, and horrific puppets.

“Another world, another time, in the age of wonder.”

The Dark Crystal sets up a scenario in a world unlike ours. Over 1,000 years ago, the world was covered with green and good, until the crystal cracked. Once this magical crystal had a chip in it, two new races were formed: the Skeksis, who took control of the kingdom and use the power of the crystal for their own selfish means, and the Mystics who are kind wizards who live in peace. Time is running out for this world. If the crystal isn’t repaired, the evil Skeksis will rule forever.

Jen, the last survivor of a race known as Gelflings, is the chosen one to repair The Dark Crystal to its original form. He must travel across the world, find the missing shard, and repair the crystal before The Great Conjunction is over. The Great Conjunction is a time that occurs on the planet every 1,000 years and it is the only period in which they can mend the crystal. Jen has a lot of work ahead of him. Through his journey, he will meet new friends and frightening enemies. It’s easy to see this story being influenced by countless other fantasy works where there is a chosen one. The puppets of Jim Henson make this story worth exploring.

There is something unsettling about the puppet designs in The Dark Crystal. The first time we are introduced to Jen, he is naked sitting by the water. In my humble opinion, there are few things as bizarre as a naked puppet. That isn’t the only time in this film they disrobe a puppet, either. One of the Skeksis is banished after a duel and with that, he loses his clothing. If you thought the bird creatures were creepy before, you’ve seen nothing yet. What would a fantasy movie be without a large cast of unique and fascinating creatures? There are plenty of nightmares to be born from the Landstriders that help Jen and his companions navigate through the world. These creatures look like they belong more in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark than a Jim Henson movie. Then there is the dog-like creature Fizzgig. He looks like a Tribble from Star Trek lore, except that he has eyes and dangerous-looking teeth. Not something you’d want to take home with you.

Dark Crystal Screenshot

Most of the character designs can be attributed to the illustrations from Brian Froud. He developed multiple illustrated works before collaborating with Henson, including Faeries, that had images of mystical creatures. Henson would collaborate with Froud on The Dark Crystal and then again later on Labyrinth. Even Froud’s son, Toby, was a major cast member on the Labyrinth movie, as the baby that David Bowie captures. Toby Froud will come full circle, too, as they have cast him in Netflix’s upcoming The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance prequel.

If the creatures weren’t scary enough, a few scenes that stand out as being truly unsettling. When Jen is introduced to another Gelfling known as Kira, he finds himself in a predicament. He is sinking and will drown, should the tides not turn. Kira uses her unique ability to talk to animals and a Nebrie rescues Jen from his demise. They tell us these animals aren’t aggressive, and two of its babies come into the frame. Seconds later the scene fades into a banquet for the Skeksis. They are eating none other than a baby Nebrie for dinner. Talk about morbid.

One of the other sequences that got under my skin involves stealing the essence of the Podlings. Podlings seem like simple creatures that like to have a good time. One of them even took care of Kira when she was orphaned. The Skeksis believe these Podlings can be used to give them back their youth and thus they capture and drain Podlings of their essence. Picture this, a tiny creature strapped into a chair, getting sucked of its life force. They leave the Podling as a shadow of itself with white hair and wrinkled to the point of death. It is a chilling sequence that makes one question if this film was meant for children.

The Dark Crystal Screenshots

For all the horror that is found in The Dark Crystal, it is easy to forget that there is a solid movie about determination and some fascinating world-building going on. Jen asks many times whether he should continue his journey to repair the crystal because of how much suffering his journey has caused. It’s in those instances where Jen looks back and questions his role in the surrounding destruction that adds emotional heft to his adventure. I’ve already mentioned the incredible creature designs, but the mythology that Henson and company built for the world of The Dark Crystal continues to be explored to this day. It is the reason the prequel is being developed at Netflix and why there are multiple glossaries available online. It is a big reason there are still legions of fans.

Henson didn’t mind if children were scared while watching his puppet fantasy film. Like many authors and creators before him, he believed children could take a little horror. The Dark Crystal might not be for every child, but no one can question its unique attributes and commitment to creating a fantasy world where the imagination can run wild. Henson had big dreams for The Dark Crystal and while he achieved a great deal with his feature film, there is much more to be explored.

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