When Judge Daryl Loomis turned seven, he got the now-rare Tickle-Me Skeksis doll for his birthday.
What was sundered and undone shall be whole; the two made one.
For kids growing up in the late 1970s-early 1980s, Jim Henson was a magician. Able to turn cloth into living, breathing, singing characters, there was little I looked forward to more than The Muppet Show. Henson's first foray into feature films came in the form of The Dark Crystal, but these weren't the Muppets I knew and loved. These did not sing and often stopped breathing and stopped living. The film scared me half to death when I was six years old and now it returns, looking stunning in High-definition.
Facts of the Case
A thousand years ago, a shard was broken off the legendary Dark Crystal, a powerful artifact containing forces beyond the imagination. When the shard was taken, two new races appeared: the somber and peaceful Mystics and the power-mad, evil Skeksis. These two races have battled for a millennia over control of the crystal, and thus the land, but prophecy tells of a young Gelfling, of a race the Skeksis murdered years before, will come to restore the shard, making the crystal whole and restoring peace to the land. Let's just say the Skeksis aren't too hot on this plan and they'll do just about anything to stop that from happening.
The story for The Dark Crystal is pure Joseph Campbell rehash and, as such, doesn't have a whole lot to write home about. There's nothing surprising; we've seen this story in plenty of incarnations. We have our unlikely, reluctant hero in Jen, one of the few survivors of his Gelfling race; we have our object quest in replacing the crystal shard; we have an evil ruling elite struggling to maintain power over those they oppress; pretty much everything is here to create the Campbell-style mythos. At this point, I'm awfully weary of the story, but it does serve an important purpose. Even if we can identify every plot development and twist that might occur in the film, the storyline is accessible, especially to children, to whom The Dark Crystal is aimed. My grousing comes more from having become a grizzled old man; this story is standard stuff, but it's effective enough and, for kids, it's enchanting. They haven't been overexposed yet, so the plot is both novel to them and beautifully concise.
Whatever I think of the plot, though, is squashed by how spectacular the puppetry and production design are. Henson and Frank Oz (The Stepford Wives) are the acknowledged masters of their art, but The Dark Crystal goes farther than just Muppets, though there are plenty populating the world. Using a combination of them, marionettes, and costumes, Henson creates a population free of humans and full of strange, wonderful creatures, brimming with life and energy. No two types of creature are even close to alike, and they all look amazing. From the humanoid Gelflings who serve as audience surrogates, to the Skeksis and their wicked, reptilian stature, to the bizarre, alien Land Striders, each creature distinguishes its own personality through look, sound, and action. We do have some of the sweet, cuddly creatures that might live on Sesame Street, but we also have some of the most monstrous puppets ever conceived. Kids will inevitably fall in love with the earthy pod people who have cared for Kira, the other Gelfling, but they will cower in fear when those same creatures are attacked and stuffed into cages to be converted into slaves. It may even be a little too much for the younger tykes, but hey, I saw it when I was pretty young and I turned out ok, right?
I was a little nervous that a high-def transfer would expose some of the magic of The Dark Crystal, that we'd see wires and seams in the puppets. Happily, all of that was totally unfounded; not only does the film look amazing on Blu-ray, it looks new. Aside from a few rough-looking back projection shots, all of the visual effects hold up today and the puppetry still looks seamless. They didn't skimp on the transfer to achieve this, either. The 1080p 2.35:1 widescreen image is the best I've seem thus far, with perfect clarity and brilliant colors. You can see every blade of grass and every ripple of water during the bright daytime scenes while, at night and in the almost exclusively dark interiors, there is strong depth and detail all the way to the farthest reaches of the frame. While the video is stunningly good, the audio isn't quite. Presented in a Dolby 5.1 TrueHD mix, all the channels are perfectly clear, but every one outside of the center is too soft. This leaves the dialog strong, while the music and ambient sound gets a raw deal. It isn't bad, just average; it's a letdown compared to the picture, because it could have been so much better.
The special features are a mixed bag. The entire set of extras from the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Dark Crystal has been carried over, and these are all pretty good. The most informative is the audio commentary with artist Brian Froud, whose work was the genesis of the creatures in the film, discusses the transformation of his work into what we see on the screen in what makes for an above average track, full of some good information that gets repetitive after awhile. A documentary called "The World of The Dark Crystal" comes from around the time of the film and features good interviews with Henson, Oz, and many others. Two featurettes under the heading "Reflections of The Dark Crystal" are unexciting, but occasionally interesting. The really interesting stuff is, unfortunately, the most brief. One deleted scene comes on the disc: the alternating funerals of the Skeksis emperor and the Mystic elder, which should have been included in the original film and, additionally, looks terrible, further driving home the point of how good the film itself looks. A short piece detailing the original concepts for the Skeksis language makes it seem like an interesting concept, but one that is thankfully left on the table.
The Blu-ray exclusive features, however, range from mediocre to idiotic and none of them are worth very much at all. Going from best to worst, we start with a storyboard track that plays along, picture-in-picture, with the film. It's cool to see the drawings next to their realizations, but there's no reason they couldn't have accomplished this same thing in a split-screen gallery. Next, we wave a new introduction to the Skeksis language track by screenwriter David Odell. It's fine, but what's the point? Now we have a sharp drop-off in quality with the "ShekTek Crystal Challenge," a trivia game that plays along with the movie. The trouble is, you can't skip ahead and, after missing only a few questions, it shuts down, making you start all over again. This is a babysitting tool if I've ever seen one. Finally, in what may be the dumbest special feature I've ever seen, we have the "Book of Thra-Dark Crystal Challenge," in which you press on your remote when it tells you to, for the purpose of "collecting" objects, or images, from the movie. When you collect all the objects, well, I'll leave the surprise to you.
Dark and magical, The Dark Crystal is the pinnacle of Jim Henson's technical achievement. I may not care a whole lot for the story, and the Blu-ray features may be completely worthless, but the beauty and power of the world created here, as well as the amazing depth and quality of the picture, I'll come back to this disc again and again.
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