The Tao of the Dark Crystal, Part 1

The world knows beauty as beauty,
So there is then ugliness.
The world knows good as good,
So there is then the bad.

Tao Te Ching, trans. A. S. Kline

I first saw The Dark Crystal when I was three on HBO.  I remember being mesmerized and frightened in equal amounts, although I had little idea of what was happening.  I remembered a young elfin boy wandering through a dangerous, mystical world, pursued by black crab-like monsters.  The film left such an impression that I rediscovered it at a Wal-Mart twelve years later in the discount bin, having never seen it since my first viewing.  The fright and the amazement returned, and with it a great deal of appreciation for the thought and passion put into its inception.  This was the film that ignited my love of fantasy, put me on the road to writing fiction in my spare time, and led me to explore alternative religious traditions.

And it wouldn’t have existed without the creator of the Muppets.

Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990, twenty-one years ago from last Monday, at the tragic age of 53. Of his diverse and eclectic legacy — founding Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop, creating several TV shows, producing a half dozen live action movies, raising the bar for puppetry — his more experimental, less family-friendly fare might be overlooked.  The Muppet legacy is enormous, and rightly so. But Jim Henson wasn’t just a brilliant puppeteer.  Before he was manipulating puppets for hundreds of commercials, he was making experimental films, beginning with the short Time Piece and the TV movie The Cube.  His success with the Muppets and his skills as a puppeteer gave his company the opportunity to create Yoda for George Lucas in The Empire Strikes Back.  Yoda’s was codesigned with Brian and Wendy Froud, fantasy artists known for their haunting depictions of fairies.

After working on The Empire Strikes Back, Henson met with the Frouds and discussed creating a fantasy film together.  Henson’s workshop had demonstrated with Yoda how they could create fantasy creatures impossible with special effects of the time.  Henson’s sensibilities meshed well with the Frouds’ designs.  They spent several years developing character designs, Henson giving suggestions on what was possible with puppet technology, and Froud taking this knowledge and making the tools at hand come to life.  Henson attracted the attention of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz, who had left the production of Return of the Jedi due to creative differences with Lucas.  Waiting in an airport gate for a flight, Henson sketched out the story skeleton that would become The Dark Crystal.

Jen is a Gelfling, the lone survivor of the genocide of his species by the Skeksis.  The Skeksis rule the world Thra from a forbidding castle, where the source of their power is kept: a powerful, murky, hovering crystal.  The Skeksis are merciless, using their creations the Garthim to enforce their will, spreading disharmony and ecological destruction everywhere.  Jen lives with the urRu (called “Mystics” in the movie), slow monk-like creatures who contemplate the mysteries of their world and little else.  Jen’s adoptive father, the wisest of the urRu, tells him that the three suns of Thra will soon join, and that he must heal the dark crystal to prevent the Skeksis from ruling Thra forever.

Jen leaves the valley of the Mystics and meets Aughra, a wise crone who gives him a crystal shard.  The Garthim find Jen in short order, and he is chased from Aughra’s observatory.  He then meets Kira, another Gelfling, who thought she was the lone survivor of their species.  After a brief stay with Kira’s Podling foster-family (who resemble potatoes), they find the ruins of an ancient Gelfling city.  There Jen discovers what his adoptive father meant: the shard is a piece of the dark crystal, and he must use the shard to heal the crystal before the great conjunction.

They sneak into the castle, where a Skeksis injures Jen and captures Kira.  Kira escapes from the Skeksis (who want to drain her essence to revitalize their aging bodies) and the two find their way into the chamber of the crystal.  Kira gives her life so Jen can heal the crystal just as the three suns touch.  It is then that the urRu enter the castle, and their bodies join with the Skeksis.  The Skeksis and the urRu were once a single race, the urSkeks, who split when they tried to tear their undesirable parts away from themselves.  The newly rejoined urSkeks heal Kira in thanks for righting their great wrong.  The urSkeks leave Thra, including the restored Crystal of Truth, in the care of Jen and Kira.

The Dark Crystal was the first life-action film where no humans appeared onscreen (with the exception of a small actor, in a puppet mask and dress, for wide shots).  Henson’s staff created every creature seen on screen, and some plants besides.  Brian Froud’s work ensured that every puppet creation had an ecological niche it could fill in the environment it was shot, from little furball Fizgig to the towering Landstriders.  Henson had done what many genre writers can only dream of: worldbuilding on a cinematic scale.

Its production proved to be especially difficult.  Henson and co-director Frank Oz clashed during filming.  Puppets were continually refined, pushing the limits of what puppeteers could achieve.  The Garthim costumes were troublesome, requiring special harnesses to allow the operators to rest in-between takes.  After filming, test audiences were confused by the invented language spoken by the Skeksis; the dialogue had to be subsequently re-recorded over all of their scenes, and exposition inserted into others to better clarify the complex rules governing Thra.

The release date was pushed back to December of 1982 due to delays.  The Hollywood machine began the marketing in earnest, creating lunch boxes, novelizations, and other licensed merchandise.  Finally, December arrived, and The Dark Crystal was about to premiere.  But the summer before had seen a behemoth that no one in Hollywood saw coming, out of whose shadow The Dark Crystal would struggle to emerge.

(Next week in part 2: the reception, themes, and legacy of The Dark Crystal!)