What was sundered and undone
Shall be whole, the two made one. . .
Aughra, The Dark Crystal
December 1982. Jim Henson, Brian Froud and the rest of those at Jim Henson Productions hoped that the premiere of The Dark Crystal would bring high fantasy films into the popular spotlight and prove to be a success. It was, but only a modest one, eclipsed by a children’s film that no one in Hollywood had paid attention to: Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
But despite E.T. and other films making 1982 a remarkably crowded summer for blockbuster movies, The Dark Crystal did modestly well, earning $40 million on its $15 million budget. The Dark Crystal is notable that it wasn’t based on an existing property (an aspect it shares with E.T.). Henson and Froud developed the world and the story of the film from scratch; it had a piece of Henson’s heart at its core. Henson was deeply spiritual — raised a Christian Scientist, was later influenced by Eastern religion — and the film reflects his beliefs.
The split of the alien urSkeks into the sloth-like urRu and avian Skeksis before the events of the film echoes a belief in Taoism that everything is made of dual natures, inseparable and necessary to the whole. Henson saw the evil that people do as well as the good, but knew that to rip out the bad half would be tantamount to cutting one’s soul in two. (LeGuin uses a similar device in the excellent A Wizard of Earthsea, where Sparrowhawk casts out his shadow self at an awful cost.)
There is also a belief in the cyclical nature of time found in The Dark Crystal. Great Conjunctions of Thra’s three suns come every 1000 years, and will continue long after the events of the film. When Jen asks Aughra what the Great Conjunction is near the beginning of the film, she replies: “The end of the world! . . . Or the beginning. End, begin, all the same. Big Change. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.”
Throughout the film is Henson’s belief in the interconnectedness of all things, of everything having a place, evident in the extensive worldbuilding done by Henson, Froud and other artists. When one thing is thrown out of balance (the genocide of the Gelflings), other things start to fall — the enslavement of the Podlings, the destruction of the land surrounding the Castle of the Crystal.
Even the nature of the urRu belie Henson’s Eastern influences. They live monastic lifestyles, secluded from the world, in a Froud-ian Shangri-La. They chant. They meditate. They compose sand paintings that are wiped away after a moment of reflection. The urRu could well be sloth-like Tibetan Buddhist monks. The urRu even believe in reincarnation! Witness Jen’s adoptive father’s words on his deathbed: “We may meet in another life, but not again in this one.” In contrast are the Skeksis, a mockery of Western culture, the creatures clinging to life and scheming as much as a Lannister in King’s Landing.
After the modest success of The Dark Crystal in 1982 (itself riding a glut of fantasy films beginning with Excalibur in 1981), studios rushed to produce more child-friendly fantasy films: The Neverending Story, Legend, The Black Cauldron, Ladyhawke, Willow. Children’s programming took a similar turn, with the usual merchandise tie-in (and often the toy begot the show) Henson developed another children’s show with similar themes (and a much lighter tone) to The Dark Crystal: HBO’s Fraggle Rock. The TV show premiered in 1983, following multiple, interdependent puppet species tenuously coexisting underneath the house of an old man and his dog.
Henson and Froud returned to fantasy with the film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. The story is Alice in Wonderland mixed with “Rumplestilskin”: Sarah’s (Connelly) brother Toby is kidnapped by the Jareth the Goblin King (Bowie), and she follows the Jareth to his kingdom, navigating the titular labyrinth to rescue her brother. The film performed poorly when released in 1986. Labyrinth was creatively designed and well-performed, and it has a lot more wit than The Dark Crystal and a more sympathetic human presence, but it lacked some of the qualities that made The Dark Crystal so entrancing: its sense of scope, its still moments in nature similar to Japanese anime, its high stakes. It also suffered pacing issues — The Dark Crystal had a slow start, but Labyrinth drags towards the final act. It took time for me to warm up to Labyrinth; I like it now, but it didn’t win me over the same way The Dark Crystal did so many years ago.
After Labyrinth‘s failure, Henson focused on his existing Muppet properties. He began talks with the Walt Disney Company to buy out the Muppets (the other creations of Jim Henson Workshop would remain under his control, including those in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth). But Henson died before Disney could complete the sale — and it was likely for the best, given Disney’s proclivities to running their creative properties into the ground in the late 90s and early 2000s. The Jim Henson Company continued to produce heartfelt, witty productions, in addition to the creature work done for shows like Farscape. Disney eventually bought out the Muppets in 2005, after a change in leadership that led the Jim Henson Company leadership to believe Disney would do better with their new-found property than they had with others prior.
A new Muppet movie is due for release in November; the trailers leave me cautiously optimistic. Meanwhile, The Dark Crystal and other creative properties of Jim Henson remain alive. A sequel film has been in development for years, with JHC repeatedly announcing release dates, but has stalled due to funding issues. However, there are two prequel series in comic form: an ongoing manga from TokyoPop titled Legends of the Dark Crystal, and a forthcoming graphic novel, The Origin of the Dark Crystal, to be published later this year by Archaia.
I’ve covered my reluctance to write fan fiction, but if there were ever a universe where I would most welcome it, it would be on Thra. Still, it’s difficult to recreate the magic of The Dark Crystal, and I doubt anything I write could match the wonder I felt when I first saw it. But I can still try; after all, I’ve been trying since I first saw it twenty-some-odd years ago.