Another World, Another Time…In the Age of Wonder.
In an age where filmmakers can create whole movies out of digital cloth, The Dark Crystal reminds us that Jim Henson was an undisputed master at creating spectacular fantasy worlds and beings with very real materials. While it may be somewhat dated, The Dark Crystal still stakes its claim to a corner of cinema history, thankfully recognized by Columbia in its genuinely special edition treatment of the disc.
The Dark Crystal tells the story of a strange world split between the large, peacefully ponderous Mystics and the dark, twisted Skeksis. The world had been "green and good" until the Dark Crystal cracked and a shard was lost, leading to the appearance of these two races and much strife. As the movie opens, the cruel Emperor of the Skeksis is dying, as is the most wise of the Mystics. There is much talk of a prophecy, of a Gelfling who will find the lost shard and heal the Dark Crystal, bringing an end to the division of the world and the strife it has caused, or the world will forever be ruled by evil.
The dying Mystic sends this one young Gelfling, named Jen, to find the lost shard in the company of a strange creature named Aughra. He makes the perilous journey intact and convinces Aughra of his true quest, but escapes the pursuing Garthim soldiers (sent by the new Emperor of the Skeksis) only by the narrowest of margins. Jen has the crystal shard, but unsure of what to do next. Before he can ponder his fate too long, a Gelfling named Kira and her toothy tribble-like pet named Fizzgig surprise him. Each Gelfling had thought themselves the last one alive, and now decide they should join together on the quest to end Skeksis power. This alliance is scarcely concluded when the ominous Garthim soldiers return, sending Jen and Kira fleeing into the wilderness. Determined to fulfill his master's mission, and knowing that he must go to the castle where the Skeksis guard the Dark Crystal, Jen sets off with Kira's help and finds a secret entrance through the dungeons of the castle.
The difficulties are formidable, the opposition strong, but so are the spirits of Jen and Kira, and they persevere, reaching the climactic confrontation at the Skeksis castle and fulfilling the quest to heal the Dark Crystal. The End
I don't think I had seen The Dark Crystal since its theatrical release some seventeen years ago, when both the state of film technology and myself were a lot younger. Having revisited Jim Henson's fantasy world once again, it is still amazing that he managed to create such a cohesive, detailed fantasy world without any of the technological wizardry of modern films (such as A Bug's Life: Collector's Edition.) The special effects of his day amounted to miniatures, matte paintings, optical composites, and some blue screen work, but most of all, a lot of talented artists and puppeteers. It certainly gives The Dark Crystal a look and feel that sets it apart from the Muppet movies that are Henson's primary legacy, which was indeed his intent.
I certainly cannot find fault with the visual creativity of The Dark Crystal, but it is fair to say that the passage of time and the march of technology has not been kind. As impressive as the visuals are, they are positively quaint and old-fashioned when viewed by an eye that has been bedazzled by the modern special effects movies. Furthermore, for a movie that is not terribly lengthy, the story seems to be paced far too slowly. The events occur and the story unfolds, but it just didn't have that spark of urgency or dramatic tension (in most scenes) that you would expect from a fantasy adventure film. Also, there are large chunks of story that are very poorly explained and simply presented with us having to accept them without understanding. On the other hand, the large and unknown cast of voice talent was well suited to their characters, matching them quite superbly and giving them the personality to be "real."
Extra content is good for a change, as aside from some rare standout discs (El Mariachi/Desperado and Ghostbusters) Columbia in the past has given this aspect of DVD limited attention. As it is, we have The World of "The Dark Crystal" (a good hour-long making -of documentary, but apparently old and of poor to average print quality), work-print scenes (using the original audio tracks for several scenes, of poor quality), deleted scenes (3.5 minutes, relating to the funeral of the Skeksis Emperor and the Mystic leader, also of poor quality), character drawings and profiles, an isolated music score, the theatrical trailers for The Dark Crystal (full-frame American, full-frame teaser, and lightly matted European), full-frame trailers for The StoryTeller and Labyrinth, and talent files for Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and conceptual designer Brian Froud. The disc comes in the preferred Amaray keep case with a multi-page color insert that has production notes of its own.
The remastered anamorphic video transfer is above average, but falls well short of reference-quality territory. First, the good points. Blacks are solid, video noise is minimal, digital enhancement problems are absent, and the colors are decently saturated (though not as vibrant as more modern films, as expected.) Next, the less than exceptional points. Sharpness is okay, but The Dark Crystal lacks a pleasingly crisp, film-like look. Bits of dirt and film defects make their presence known a shade too often for my taste. One odd distraction is that on occasion the intensity of the color in a scene seems to pulse. If this is a problem with the original film elements, I would not be surprised, but it is disappointing.
The audio does its job, but it's not going to knock your socks off either. The dialogue is clear and understood and is the primary center of the soundstage. There is limited use of channel effects and your subwoofer will generally have the night off. Perhaps most disappointing is that while the music of Trevor Jones (Notting Hill, Merlin(made for TV), Richard III) is uplifting and pleasant, on the disc it lacks power, brightness, and a bass anchor, as if it was only using the middle portion of the sound spectrum.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, here's a pet peeve that's been building for a while (and it is a sin committed by any number of studios, so Columbia should not be singled out.) Quite frequently, a remastered, anamorphic video transfer is trumpeted as being a special feature. Naturally, this leads one to expect a higher quality picture, but this is not always the case due to the presence of dirt and film blemishes. Come on, people, if you are going to the trouble of doing an anamorphic remaster, spend a little dough and clean up the darned print! Those of us with RPTVs and the like are going to notice those continual specks and blips, and it's very aggravating when we had hoped for a clean picture.
If you are looking for a quiet fantasy movie with intriguing visuals, then by all means give it a rental. It's very kid-safe, as one would expect, so this might be best suited to family fare, though kids weaned on modern TV might be a bit bored with this slowly moving film. If Jim Henson, puppetry, or fantasy movies are your bag, then you can't go wrong here with a reasonable price ($25) and decent collection of extras.
The film and Columbia are acquitted, though Columbia is warned that special editions are only special if the print is restored to as close to its original glory as can be achieved.
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• Making-of Documentary
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