Jen Grew Up: Moving on from The Dark Crystal

Even the Urskeks knew when it was time to leave.
Sunday afternoon I turned on The Dark Crystal for my annual re-watch, a New Year’s tradition of mine. As I was sorting through old mail and generally cleaning house, something odd happened:

I turned it off midway through.

My feelings about this beautiful, imaginative film have evolved over the past few years. I was deeply invested in this film not too long ago. Yet after my disillusionment with the Henson Company’s prequel writing contest in 2013, I started taking a more critical look at it.

I typically don’t do this to movies. Books, including both prose and graphic novels, I can engage in with some distance, which allows me to tease apart a story more easily. Yet movies have always been visceral, and I’m usually too emotionally involved with the visuals to properly engage them.

But The Dark Crystal meant a lot to me, and I had to figure out why. The writer in me had to know whether it was the storytelling or the production design that drew me to it.

Well, here’s what I found.

1) Jen is a terrible protagonist. Sure, he’s a decent Gelfling: literate, sensitive, trying to do the right thing. But he has no agency whatsoever. He’s surrounded by motivated, powerful characters — his counterpart Kira, the wise, imposing Aughra, those terrifying Skeksis. But he has to be prodded at every step of the way to just do his damn job. He’s a stoner with a pan pipe. But beyond Jen…

2) Many of my weaknesses as a storyteller can be linked to this film. I’m a visual writer, so stories with imaginative, vivid images are my drug. Unfortunately, this movie is slow. Besides having a lump of a protagonist, so much of its plot relies on coincidence. The resurrection scene at the end is a deus ex machina. Apart from the Garthim soldiers in constant pursuit, there’s no conflict.

What if Jen and Kira had real disagreements about what to do, not just a thirty-second shouting match towards the end? What if those conflicts could be drawn from their upbringing — Jen cautious yet naive, Kira practical but passionate?

I see a lot of these issues in my own work, and I wonder if it started here. And yet…

3) It no longer has anything to teach me. This one stung, and realizing this is why I stopped watching the other day. Jen’s story is about a young person first entering the world, where everything is terrifying and people are willing to help you just because you’re special. There’s only one person you’re suited for in all of existence, who has to do all the work for you. Everyone is either a helpless victim or a remorseless monster.

There’s plenty of worldbuilding — an intense collaboration between the wry Jim Henson and the mystical Brian Froud — but few people. The Skeksis have more character than the Gelflings.

This fault runs through the expanded Dark Crystal universe. According to the story bible I read for the writing contest, the Gelfling are always pacifists, the Mystics/Uru are unmotivated monks, and the Podlings hedonistic simpletons. The story weaknesses of the original film might have been accidental, but now they’re by design.

I haven’t had any motivation to finish Brian Froud’s Creation Myths prequel comics, or read the sequel comic series. I might pick up JM Lee’s YA novels, because he’s demonstrated a unique voice backed with talent. I forgot there was a Netflix series in production until a moment ago. There’s just too much Dark Crystal, spread thin by a company trying to capitalize on nostalgia.

I feel as though it’s become drained of its essence, a lifeless shell moving about at the whims of its masters.

There’s another possibility: I could just be burned out, or suffering from another depressive episode. But I don’t feel the same way about my other favorite stories. I put on Castle in the Sky a couple days before watching The Dark Crystal, and it moved me to tears. I’m in a better emotional place now than I have all year. It’s probably just the movie.

I think I’m finally ready to move on from The Dark Crystal.

Now, the films on my top 10 list won’t automatically bump up a spot, Klingon-promotion style, so I’m not ready to call Princess Mononoke my #1 just yet. (I’d have to pick between it and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which is a hard call). I’d rather leave that spot open.

(Incidentally, my list of top 10 novels changes frequently, although Dune is usually close to the top. Being so damn long, I don’t revisit it as often.)

2018 is going to be an interesting year. Maybe I need to let something new into my life.