Watching The Dark Crystal again was a nostalgia trip: it really impressed me as an eight-year-old back in 1982, so much so that pretty much the entire story and all the key images of the film were still fresh in my memory 21 years later. Who can forget those terrifying chittering Garthim, bursting through walls to snatch up helpless Gelflings, or the Skeksis in all their decaying elegance? I certainly didn't! It's not quite as magical watching it again with adult eyes, but all in all, The Dark Crystal holds up remarkably well, a tribute to the imaginative power of its creator, Jim Henson.
The great strength of The Dark Crystal is its truly fresh and imaginative world. This is not Earth; there are no humans or any other animals or even plants that we would recognize. Instead, there is a fantastic array of creatures, both animal and vegetable (and everything in between), inhabiting the landscape, giving it a truly alien feel. Jim Henson's attention to detail shows up throughout the film; in addition to the spectacular set-pieces like the Castle of the Dark Crystal or Aughra's laboratory with its celestial model, countless tiny creative touches appear in the scenes, like the rodent-like aliens that scurry about in the castle.
In 1982, Henson didn't have the powerful tool of computer graphics to help him create this completely new world; the characters are all mechanical puppets, moving through full-sized sets and using real props. But while you might think that this would be a blow against the film in this era of CGI, it's not: visually, The Dark Crystal still looks polished. There are a few instances in which the film's effects look a little dated (particularly some of the shots with the "crystal bats") but as a whole, the world of The Dark Crystal is just as believable as in its original release. The inhabitants of this strange, alien world are exquisitely detailed (the Skeksis and the Mystics in particular) and have a solidity to them that perhaps adds to the feeling that this is a real place.
Like traditional fairy tales, a good children's film can evoke the dark visions of childhood as well as the bright ones, and The Dark Crystal hits the right notes of delightful horribleness with the Garthim and the vulture-like Skeksis. Certainly there were some parts that creeped me out as an eight-year-old watching it, particularly the scenes with the beetle-like Garthim pursuing Jen, or the Podlings being drained of their life energy. The overall tone is kept from being too dark, however, by the frequent light and humorous touches. These are handled very well indeed, making the viewer laugh while knowing exactly where to stop before making the scene too broadly comic. The main "comic relief" element is Fizgig, and for a non-speaking character, this charming little furball is amazingly full of personality, and lights up every scene he's in.
The narrative itself is taken straight out of myth and folklore: the young hero must leave the safety and security of home, go on a journey, and take on a dangerous task to save the world, receiving help from unlikely sources along the way. In a more "conventional" fantasy setting, this could have made the story feel tired, but in the fantastic world of the Dark Crystal, it feels new again.
The Dark Crystal: Collector's Edition is packaged in a handsome box with a lid that lifts to open. It's very distinctive and eye-catching, and is robustly made. The only potential drawback to the packaging is its size: at 8 inches tall, it's about half an inch taller than the typical keepcase and 3/4 of an inch wider, which may make for a tight fit in some DVD storage units (it didn't fit the shelves in my DVD case, for instance).
The Dark Crystal appears in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and has been anamorphically enhanced (don't be alarmed at the non-anamorphic menu screen). Colors are bright, rich, and vibrant throughout the film, and contrast is handled extremely well; scenes in the shadowy Skeksis castle look just as good as the light-filled valley of the Mystics. Edge enhancement is present, but it's only visible in a few scenes, and isn't too obtrusive. Overall, the level of detail in the image is quite good. The print is not as clean as I'd like to have seen, considering how good the rest of the transfer is; there are small flaws that appear throughout the image, though most heavily at the beginning of the film. There are also a few instances of the image having a slight brownish tint, although this is always brief. When you look at the murky, dark, blurry print that is used in the trailers for the film, it's very evident that The Dark Crystal was cleaned up considerably for its DVD release.
The film's original Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is the default; a remastered Dolby 5.1 track is the second choice. The 5.1 is marginally the better option; both the 2.0 and the 5.1 have a clean sound with clear dialogue and a nice balance of music, sound effects, and speech. The Dolby 5.1 has a bit more depth to it; there's not a whole lot of surround activity here, but the added channels do allow for some spatial separation of the different sounds, making for a more attractive overall audio presentation. A Spanish Dolby 2.0 track is also provided, along with English and Spanish subtitles.
The bonus materials in the Collector's Edition start before you even get to the DVD itself. Inside the case is an introductory letter from Cheryl Henson, Jim Henson's daughter, describing the circumstances of The Dark Crystal's origins. Next, we get a "limited edition Senitype": it's a sturdy cardboard insert printed with an image from the film, with an actual 35mm frame of that image inserted into the middle of the insert. Finally, we get what's probably the most creative "bonus feature" I've seen: a miniature reproduction of one of Jim Henson's original notebooks with ideas and sketches for the film. It's reproduced as an actual notepad and offers an intriguing glimpse into the creative process behind The Dark Crystal.
Moving to the DVD itself, there are a number of supplements to be seen. First in line is a text-only piece, "The Mithra Treatment," which consists of Henson's original description of the world and plot of the film that would become The Dark Crystal. It's interesting to see just how different the original ideas were, but the usability of this feature is reduced by the fact that a very small amount of text is presented on each screen, thus requiring a lot of clicking to get through it.
The highlight of the special features is a 57-minute behind-the-scenes documentary called "The World of The Dark Crystal." It was clearly made before the release of the film, and so in some ways it's promotional in nature, and it does rely more heavily than I'd like on clips from the movie. However, it also offers an intriguing glimpse at the making of the film, and it has interesting and reasonably substantial interviews with Jim Henson, co-director Frank Oz, conceptual designer Brian Froud, and other people involved with the making of the film.
The next major section is one of "extra scenes." One actual deleted scene is included: the funeral of the Skeksis emperor. The other seven scenes are "original language workprint scenes." Although no explanation is provided of what they mean by "original language," I eventually figured it out: apparently a draft of the film had all the non-Gelfling characters speaking in their own languages (and presumably subtitled, although subtitles are optional when watching the workprint scenes). This certainly would have given even more authenticity to the world of the film, but evidently Henson decided to go a more moderate route; in the final version of the film, only the Podlings speak in a different language (which I felt was a very nice touch that added to the texture of the film). In any case, in these seven scenes we can hear what the Skeksis and Aughra would have sounded like without being translated. In the scene with the Skeksis and Aughra, some of the dialogue is in "Gelfling" (English), which lets us see that some of the dialogue was revised for the final cut as well.
Rounding out the special features are a set of character illustrations, storyboards, character profiles, and "talent files" on Henson, Frank Oz, and Brian Froud. Three different trailers for The Dark Crystal are also included (the U.S. version, the European version, and the teaser trailer) and a trailer for Labyrinth.
With a simple, mythic story set in a truly alien world, The Dark Crystal offers a very entertaining hour and a half's worth of entertainment. Fans of the film will of course want to jump on this loaded collector's edition with its excellent transfer; for viewers in general this film warrants a strong "recommended." If there are kids in the family, make that an even stronger recommendation: this is a really solid movie that will particularly appeal to kids but entertain the adults as well.