I do not consider fantasy among my favorite film genres, but, when fantasy is done well, it can result in a thoroughly involving film. I consider The Dark Crystal such a film, and Jim Henson and Frank Oz's meticulously crafted drama is captivating from its first scene. The film relies heavily on then-groundbreaking animatronics, and is several shades darker than typical family films of the era. Those expecting The Muppet Show may be surprised to learn there is quite a bit of death and despair in this fantastical drama, which was written by David Odell. Stephen Garlick voices Jen, an elf-like creature called a Gelfling, who was protected by the Mystics, a group of benevolent wizards, after his family was killed. The film opens amid turmoil: The spiteful Skeksis have for years thrived off the power of the Dark Crystal to maintain vitality. Their race began thousands of years ago when the magical crystal was broken, and they gained power over the contemporaneously created Mystics. The Skeksis' leaders are dying, and seek the crystal's severed shard to restore their power. Jen is tasked by the Mystics to guard and restore the shard to the crystal and regain balance and peace on planet Thra.
With two imaginative directors at the helm, The Dark Crystal offers plenty of intrigue and magic. Jen begins his journey toward his destiny without knowing exactly what he is supposed to do. There is a prophecy about restoring the crystal, and time is of the essence. If the planet's three suns align before the task is complete, the Skeksis will rule for all eternity. The creature design here is intricate and impressive. The Mystics are gentle, kinder beasts with features of fowl, canine and even aardvarks. The Skeksis are harsh, bird-like creatures with gaudy clothing and terrible manners. Jen is elf-like, with human characteristics and a developed personality. Jen first encounters Aughra (voiced by Billie Whitelaw), a mystic who explains the upcoming alignment of the suns and offers him the chance to select the correct crystal shard, which he does. They are attacked by Garthim, crab-like creatures sent by the Skeksis to recover the shard and kill Jen. Jen escapes but Aughra is captured, and Jen continues his journey, meeting Kira (voiced by Lisa Maxwell), a surviving Gelfling with whom he shares a telepathic connection.
The narrative is a familiar one of good versus evil, and Henson apparently wanted to evoke the darker mysteries of Grimm's Fairy Tales. The Dark Crystal also acknowledges that everyone has the ability to be good or evil, based on the choices they make. The Mystics and Skeksis are simply antagonistic counterparts of the same race. The film offers very impressive puppeteering, and the details of Thra are incredible. From blades of grass to water features to small animals, each object was painstakingly created by hand. The world and filmmaking techniques occasionally overwhelm the story, but the filmmakers were not aiming to create an overly complex fantasy. The straightforward story works here, and there are some unexpectedly frightening moments. As a uniquely acted and shot morality adventure, The Dark Crystal succeeds.
Odell's screenplay does a nice job fleshing out the characters in the film's limited 93-minute running time. Kira helps Jen understand his heritage, and the infighting between the Skeksis' Chamberlain (voiced by Barry Dennen) and skekUng (voiced by Michael Kilgarriff) is entertaining. After losing a bid to assume power, the Chamberlain goes on his own mission, and attempts to convince Jen and Kira his clan wants only peace. The final showdown offers eye-melting, castle-collapsing action, and the film introduces more cleverly designed beasts and characters. I get movie fatigue sometimes, watching what feels like the same thing over and over again. The Dark Crystal is a welcome reprieve from that monotony and offers something truly unique and entertaining. This puppet-driven fantasy from Oz and Henson charms, and skillfully mixes adventure, horror and drama without stumbling over its fantastical roots.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
Restored, film-shot catalogue titles continue to impress me the most on 4K Ultra HD, and The Dark Crystal is no exception. Sony scanned the original 35mm camera negative at 4K and competed an extensive HDR color-grading pass under supervision of folks at the late Henson's company. Quite simply, this looks as I imagine seeing the film in a first-rate theater did in 1982. The entire production lends itself to impressive 4K visuals, from the intimate details of the animatronics to the unique practical sets to the rich colors. Grain is natural and filmic, and remains consistent throughout the film. Sharpness and clarity are nearly perfect; close-ups reveal minute details on costumes and sets and wide shots are crisp and clear. The HDR color wheel is grand and impressive; reds and oranges pop and blacks and purples are deep and inky. Shadow detail is excellent, and the film even looks great during lower-light pans. Highlights never bloom, and contrast is excellent. This is a top-tier 4K transfer.
The disc includes a Dolby Atmos mix, which I sampled as a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD offering. This mix is totally immersive, and sends viewers directly into the action on Thra. There are plenty of ambient and action effects, and these make good use of the surrounds. Sound pans are frequent and expertly executed. Dialogue is crystal clear, whether delivered from the center channel or the surrounds. The rich score by Trevor Jones is organic and nicely balanced. The entire mix benefits from solid bass, excellent clarity and expert element spacing. A host of lossy dubs and subtitle options are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the 4K Ultra HD disc, a Blu-ray and an UltraViolet HD digital copy. The discs are packed in a black case that is wrapped in an attractive, glossy slipcover. All extras appear on the Blu-ray: The Myth, Magic and Henson Legacy (10:27/HD) is a new extra in which Henson's family discusses the late creator; Commentary by Conceptual Designer Brian Froud; Storyboard Picture-in-Picture Track; The World of The Dark Crystal (57:26/SD), a vintage making-of; Reflections of The Dark Crystal (36:41/SD), a two-part making-of created for an earlier DVD release; Deleted Scenes (3:48 total/SD); Original Skeksis Language - Text Scenes, which shows the original version of the Skeksis' banter; Storyboards; Photo Galleries; Teaser Trailer (0:37/HD); and the Theatrical Trailer (1:19/HD).
Imaginative and wholly involving, The Dark Crystal is a wonderful, fantastical collaboration from Frank Oz and Jim Henson. The film benefits from impressive animatronics and intricate sets, and offers much darker adventures than most family films. The 4K Ultra HD release offers superb picture and sound and some decent supplements. Highly Recommended.