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By Ryan Cracknell | June 4, 2002

“The Dark Crystal” sends master-puppeteer Jim Henson into a dark fantasy world void of Swedish chefs, comedic bears and pigs in space. It’s an epic battle of good versus evil that sends a young man on a long, archetypal journey to save the world. Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s a story as old as time redone in books and films over and over again. But this one’s got the one-of-a-kind Henson vision and style.

For 1,000 years, good and evil have been divided in two. When the Dark Crystal was damaged, it split the world into the kind Mystics and the wicked Skesis. Now the three suns are about to align in the Great Convergence and the world will either be taken over by the Skesis or peace will make a permanent return. The fate of the world hangs on Jen, a Gelfling who must make his way to the Skesis’ kingdom and return a missing shard of the Dark Crystal before time runs out.

Jen is a Mobbit hero—a combination of Muppet and Hobbit. He’s grown up to believe that he’s the last living Gelfling. Raised by the Mystics, Jen is smart, kind and everybody’s friend. He’s the classic underdog outsider that’s impossible not to like. But what he doesn’t know is that he’s also the key to an ancient prophecy in which he is meant to be the savior of the world. That’s quite the task for such a little elf.

“The Dark Crystal” was Henson’s first film outside of the Muppet franchise. Like most any fantasy, success hinges on look and feel of the created world. Without a human in sight, Henson’s world is an ambitious mix of dark shadows, strange flora and bizarre creatures. Although it’s made entirely from fabric, plastics and other craft store supplies, this is a place of enchantment. Most every puppet, and I’m guessing there’s hundreds if not thousands of them, comes to life and shows more animation than all of the Baldwin brothers combined.

But eye candy can only carry a movie so far. Perhaps he was used to the pacing of short “Muppet Show” sketches because Henson doesn’t seem to have a grasp for the feature-length film. Although it’s epic in nature with a story that could take hours just to set up, there are several points in “The Dark Crystal” that lag. For instance the Skesis are introduced as a sinister race that look like a hideous mix of vultures and skeletal rats. Yet Henson manages to tone down their dark sides by including a comedic dinner scene that does nothing to move the plot forward. Much time is also spent on the cutesy forest creatures. Although these scenes show off the magic of the film’s design, it does very little to the plot.

“The Dark Crystal” is a dark departure from the Jim Henson that the general public thought they knew from watching the likes of Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and the rest of his Muppet creations. This film laid the stylistic groundwork for later cinematic ventures like “Labyrinth” and television shows such as “The Storyteller” and “The Jim Henson Hour.”

“The Dark Crystal” is enjoyable more for its visual journey rather than the story itself. As writer, director, producer and performer, Henson gives credence to the auteur theory. But in doing so, he also sets himself for the inevitable backlash stemming from the story’s failures. Even so, “The Dark Crystal” is a work of art that pushes the limits and possibilities of puppets.

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