Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” Is A Last Hurrah For Practical Effects

In a last hurrah for practical special effects, Jim Henson, with co-director Frank Oz, give us 1982’s puppet-filled world of The Dark Crystal.

There are some films which transcend generations and stand alone as unique examples of cinematic endeavour. Over time such specimens have diminished with the onset of cost effective technologies, home office FX suites and sheer expense. Not so The Dark Crystal, exemplifying the perseverance and singular application of its talented creator Jim Henson.

A pioneer in puppetry Henson combined slapstick, vaudeville, unrequited love and terrible acting through his landmark property The Muppet Show. Throughout the Seventies and early Eighties he spearheaded puppet performance theatre through Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy and Gonzo to name but a few. This spawned cinema releases, fully fledged franchises and big business opportunities. Where The Dark Crystal sits in there is where things really get interesting.

 

Henson had an idea inspired by artistry from illustrator Brian Froud which expanded into an entire fantasy realm peopled by puppets. When you watch The Dark Crystal remember that there are few effects shots, no reshoots and post production work was limited to editing. Not only did Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Brian Froud create animatronic technology from nothing, but their blueprints and innovations would go on to influence cinema for decades.

Before The Dark Crystal nobody had attempted a full scale production using puppets, lighting them like real actors, instilling personality, believability or emotion into inanimate creations. Teams of people worked for two years before a minute of film was shot in a joint effort of ingenuity, invention and sheer imagination all driven by Henson.

His basic story of good versus evil had more in common with philosophical trains of thought, senses of self and universal cause and effect than anything Muppet related. Production design, geometrical character development and an organic creation of ancient civilisations were key to making this world exist for audiences. Sets were designed around the limitations of what their puppets were able to do so that any wires, operators or machinery remained hidden. Beyond the high minded concept this is a film noteworthy for its execution rather than anything else.

 

Basic in concept but ground breaking elsewhere, The Dark Crystal stands alone as a cinematic singularity, inevitably dated but no less innovative as a result. This Blu-ray is one for anoraks of film ephemera with extensive background footage, archive interviews and ample time to see behind the curtain of Jim Henson’s creature shop. Inspiring, thought-provoking and ultimately family friendly, The Dark Crystal is a reminder of what practical effects really did.