The best way to watch The Dark Crystal is not through your typical movie-viewing lens. It’s best to go through the experience as though you are attending a puppet show. That way, you aren’t holding it to conventional notions of story or script. It’s like a circus or a magic show in that it’s absolutely possible to enjoy as long as you don’t spend too much time trying to figure out the tricks.
Focusing exclusively on visual experience, The Dark Crystal is magnificent. The things that these filmmakers are able to accomplish, using puppetry as their primary medium, are astonishing. The world of the movie is populated with dozens of unique creatures, spanning a wide array of species, each with its own characteristics and methods of movement. From the rotting vulture-like Skeksis to the ancient hexapedal Mystics, the amount of care and creativity that has gone into crafting these characters is utterly remarkable. From time to time, it’s possible to “see the strings,” like when you watch the Gelflings hop around like characters from Thunderbirds but for the most part, the majesty of imagination overtakes the demand for understanding.
The other thing that elevates this movie is its high-stakes story. At any time, The Dark Crystal seems totally comfortable to kill off or torture any and every character, no matter how cute or innocent. It’s like that scene from The NeverEnding Story where Atreyu’s horse Artax drowns in a swamp except you’re at risk of feeling like that for pretty much the entire movie. Whether it’s the Yoda-esque death of one of the last members of a nearly extinct race or the disturbing soul extraction of a quaint villager, no one inherently is safe.
There’s good reason that people often ask if this movie is made, or even appropriate, for children. While always gorgeous, its images are often “disturbing.” Within the first ten minutes, we are introduced to the Skeksis, a race of disgusting, screeching beings who eat live rodents and seem to exist strictly as nightmare fuel. Then, when the oldest, grossest, scariest, most skeletal member of their species dies, the audience is privileged to seeing the erosion and collapse of his body. Many of the movie’s images are unsettling to me, as a 26-year-old adult. I can only imagine how many parents have been woken up in the middle of the night because their kids are convinced one of these…
…is hiding under their bed.
While showcasing a mastery of the puppeting arts and a high-stakes story, The Dark Crystal isn’t a very fulfilling narrative. And by that, I mean that it’s completely insane. Characters behave the way they do because it’s what the story demands for the sake of moving onto the next sequence of the puppet show. Their morality is determined by what we’ve been told by an omniscient narrator and by “subtle” visual clues in their character design (hint: the Skeksis are bad guys). It really does feel as though optimizing the visual experience was the real priority when making the movie so one cannot help but wonder what would happen (if it’s even possible to do) if a pinnacle of craftsmanship like this could be supported by a similarly masterful narrative. We’ve seen a lot of what this world is capable of, it’s just a shame that its biggest, most important story is told in such a formulaic (when it’s not just plain confusing) way.
Dylan Clark-Moore is a podcast creator and blogger at NetFlakes. You can find him on Letterboxd and Twitter.
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The Dark Crystal is also available from Amazon.