Last week, I touched upon my initial indifference to one of Jim Henson’s most prized masterpieces. I told of my journey from watching the film out of obligation to finally realising its full potential. It’s the people behind the film that gradually drew me into the Land of Thra, a place I intend to explore until I arrive at its furthest reaches.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make reviewing the film any easier. For all that I love about it, there are still certain problems I can’t help but harp on. As a student of literature in university, I’ve been learning to dissect and analyse different aspects of a story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is being told through film, song, or in a book, it all crosses over in the end.

It all starts off on a strong note. The narrator introduces the audience to two distinct species of ancient power, complete opposites, who are facing the loss of their leaders. It’s a simple enough introduction to the Skeksis and urRu and immediately foreshadows the reveal of the UrSkek division. You get a nice glimpse into the cultures and practices of the two Halves before joining Jen at his pond. All of this is a strong example of world building, and it’s unfortunate that the plot immediately drops in quality once the who, what and where has been established.

For want of not turning this into a thesis, I’m going to break this down and discuss a few key areas I’d like to touch upon.

urSu the Wise:

Once we’ve joined Jen and fellow him to the lodgings of his wise master, urSu, we immediately run into my first little annoyance. urSu appeared to have suffered from what I like to call the ‘Professor Dumbledore Complex’, the incessant and incredibly stupid need wise mentors sometimes feel to keep uncomfortable-yet-vital truths from their prophesised pupils. Jen isn’t informed about his all-important mission until urSu is on his deathbed, leaving Jen completely unprepared and ill-equipped to succeed. I suppose this setback makes Jen a more compelling underdog hero, but urSu’s lack of foresight is something I find very hard to brush off.

If Jen had been educated on the mission to heal the Crystal of Truth at a much earlier stage, I believe the journey could have been far less hazardous. There could have been a plan in place, Jen could have been taken to the Podlings to be trained in bolas and other useful skills and for all I know, Aughra could have been contacted far earlier in regards to the Crystal shard. Would it make for a less compelling story? I don’t think so. There would still be the surprise discovery of Kira and the threat of the Skeksis to contend with. Imagine watching Kira and Jen learning more about themselves and their history through their experiences on their journey. There are elements of this in the film, but they barely breach the surface, only touching on the prophecy and remarking on how little they know.

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Song of the Crystal Shard

I recently watched Odd1sout’s entertaining review of The Dark Crystal, where he touched upon something I hadn’t even taken into consideration. Why was Jen able to figure out which of the crystal shards was the correct one so quickly in the Observatory? Despite being under immense pressure from both Aughra and the Garthim, Jen seemed to know to pull out his flute and play it. After reading Shadows of the Dark Crystal by J.M Lee, I’m now aware that some Gelfings can sense the Song of Thra. The Crystal Shard merely reacted to Jen’s music in the same way it would to Thra’s Song, trying to channel it. Now that we can answer this question due to the information we have, it’s all fine and good, but it’s a still a problem.

If The Dark Crystal had been left as a stand-alone film, it’s little moments like this that could have discredited it. There are likely people out there who have watched the film, with no intention of exploring Thra any further, who will be left confused. A strongly scripted film should not need a For Dummies book to go alongside it just to fill in the blanks.

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Jen is the Chosen One?

This goes back to the problem I had with urSu leaving what could be Thra’s last hope in the dark. I can’t help but compare Jen to a character that was created years later, Harry Potter. Both are young, orphaned and vulnerable protagonists with big responsibilities being thrust upon their shoulders, but of the two, Harry is a far stronger candidate. The readers get to experience Harry’s transition from a curious, wide-eyed child into a young man who decides to take matters into his own hands. Harry uses his initiative and seeks out his own path in a destiny that had been dictated to him by outside forces. Jen, on the other hand, simply goes through the motions and it could not be more clear that he hasn’t the faintest idea what he’s doing. I’m not calling Jen an idiot by any means. urSu unquestioningly educated Jen on the basics, but clearly nothing of actual importance that he would need for the future.

And then, there’s Kira.

Who would you be most likely to choose as a Chosen One? The naïve gelfling who was raised amongst ancient creatures who deprived him of any important knowledge, or the gelfling raised by Podlings who is the forward thinking, Thra-equivalent of street-wise? Kira outpaces Jen in multiple areas. She can throw a bola, is aware of her abilities as a gelfling, has knowledge of the Skeksis and their inventions and possesses a basic understanding of Thra’s history and geography. Keeping all that in mind, Kira is often the driving force behind Jen’s determination to keep going. Without her resourcefulness, Jen would have likely been killed long before he reached the Castle of the Crystal. I suppose you could be poetic about it and claim that they are both a part of each other, their souls are bound to Thra’s song, so therefore they make up the ‘Chosen One’.

But even I think that’s stretching things a bit.

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Chamberlain’s Big Adventure

All things considered, skekSil being kicked out of the Castle after his embarrassing loss against skekUng was beneficial for both him and the plot. Without skekSil taking up the role of lead antagonist, we as the audience would have become disconnected from the Skeksis while following Jen and Kira as they travel. skekSil also provided insight into an individual Skeksis mindset, his greed and cunning demonstrating why the Skeksis are to be feared. As a stand-alone villain, the Chamberlain is a character who is very hard to hate. You know he’s only looking out for himself and every intention he has is malicious, but he gives the two Gelflings something to think about and adds to the immense pressure they already have on their backs. For a film whose story becomes very thin around the middle, that’s always a good thing.

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A Satisfying, If Anti-Climactic Ending.

I’ve come across quite a few people griping about how The Dark Crystal closes off the story. Apparently, having the Skeksis and urRu reunite and reformed into the urSkeks, only to leave Jen and Kira in charge of the healed Crystal of Truth is quite unsatisfying. I disagree. If people were expecting intense action scenes from a 1983 film consisting of puppetry and special effects, they are kidding themselves. It hits all the right notes without all the dramatis.

Who exactly was going to engage the Skeksis in combat to get the Shard to the Crystal? Only the Mystics could be strong enough, yet they can barely shuffle themselves across the room. My only gripe with the ending is that Jen should have realised that Kira had the best shot of cleanly healing the Crystal. Kira would have been able to leap and glide over to the Crystal in the event that the Gelflings had made their way to the upper floors of the Chamber. I don’t mean at the last-minute either, I’m talking about long before they even reached the Castle. Again, it’s the lack of planning ahead by a protagonist who isn’t very proficient on his feet that bothers me.

But that’s just me nit-picking. Like I said, I’m satisfied with the ending provided. The prophesy is fulfilled, the Crystal is healed, Thra is rejuvenated and Kira gets to live on despite being fatally stabbed. Besides, not every fantasy adventure needs an over-the-top climax to reach its conclusion. The most important aspect is the journey, how the characters get to where they are going to reach the ultimate conflict. Jen and Kira did what they needed to do and it paid off, allowing them to witness Thra entering a new golden age.

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Coming in Part 2:

So, that was my analysis of the story, but what about the visuals and sound?  I realise the first half of the review has been mainly negative, but I promise there is a heap of praise and optimism coming this way as I tackle the behind-the-scenes aspects of this film for next week.

Until then, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below. I’d love to read your ideas about The Dark Crystal and the strength of its storytelling!

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2 thoughts on “The Dark Crystal: A Reluctant Review (Part 1)

  1. The “Professor Dumbledore Complex” made me laugh really hard. In 2013, when JHC was having their Dark Crystal Author Quest contest, I entered a submission. One of my goals was to make the Mystics/urRu more interesting characters, because they don’t really get a lot to do in the movie. It was difficult to get a handle on how to do that when their passivity is so central to their characterization. Eventually, I hit upon the idea of imaging them as a race of Dumbledores, and that really helped. Needless to say, I didn’t win the contest, and in retrospect I’m glad because then I would be beholden to the Hensons and I wouldn’t be able to speak out freely in favor of Steve Whitmire.

    (If you’re interested, here’s something I wrote at the time about my process. I eventually decided that the Skeksis are like a race of Voldemorts, but while it may seem kind of obvious in retrospect, it wasn’t a connection that I made immediately.)

    I agree that The Dark Crystal has flaws; it’s a challenging movie, in both good ways and bad, but I love it anyway because I find it to be one of the purest expressions of Jim Henson’s worldview.

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