Superbit DVD - Image B Sound C+
Anniversary DVD - Image A Sound B+ Extras A
BD - Image B+ Sound B+ Extras A
screenplay by David Odell
directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz
by Bill Chambers When Jim Henson passed away in 1990, he left behind a diverse legion of fans and a company whose ultimate success, it now seems, hinged on his input. Jim Henson Productions and The Creature Shop are still thriving financially, but as the past few Muppet films (or that silly-looking computer-generated monkey from Lost In Space) demonstrate, the thrill and genius are gone. I'm positive that The Dark Crystal made today by Henson's successors would not provoke from an audience of kids five to fifty the same spellbound response the 1982 original does. Which is not to say there isn't room for improvement.
An enchanted crystal has cracked, causing the leaders of the green world to split apart into two cultures: the gentle, slouchy Mystics (unmistakably sculpted after Native-American elders) and the vulturous Skeksis. On his deathbed, a Mystic mentor sends Jen, a naïve Gelfling boy (they're like heroin-skinny, androgynous elves), on a mission to find the Crystal's missing shard, which must be reinserted in the eponymous idol before the Skeksis rule eternal--before the "great conjunction" of three suns. Along the way, Jen joins forces with another surviving Gelfling, Kira, as well as a piggish seer named Aughra, who can remove her eyes to look at things (and bears a striking resemblance to Della Reese; Kira, meanwhile, could be Rebecca DeMornay's "Spitting Image" tribute--Brian Froud's creature designs are positively Rorschacian), and Fizzgig, a spastic animal that operates on the same premise as a tumbleweed.
I used to not be able to contain my nostalgia for The Dark Crystal, my favourite movie when I was eight, but I've seen jejune attachments get the best of good writers; fanboyism born of sentimentality is the new cancer among critic's circles. Enticing in its melancholy, The Dark Crystal is nonetheless childishly arbitrary, with Jen's status as the last (er, penultimate) Gelfling and requisite "chosen one" declared rather than determined. It also makes little sense that Jen's master procrastinated sharing his knowledge of the crystal shard's whereabouts until the last possible moment: With the encroaching Great Conjunction intensifying Jen's struggle, who benefits from the delay? Joseph Campbell?
And, let's face it, the Jungian power structure of Mystics/Skeksis is more archetypally sound than that which Jen and Kira seek to restore, for the opposing forces become holy white figures that exude no signs of the fundamental "balance," only benevolence. The film takes place in "the Age of Wonder," a setting of no understood context--suddenly "A Galaxy Far, Far Away" becomes the height of specificity. David Odell's script reflects the lovely yet hollow turn of phrase that opens the film--in addition to serving as its tagline ("Another Time, Another Place, In the Age of Wonder")--in its aimless mythmaking.
Yet The Dark Crystal is also the first and last Henson feature to capture the sensuality of his craft--there's an almost carnal fluidity to the puppetry, which is as mesmerizing as you've heard; the proverbial strings are out of mind from the prologue, narrated, incidentally, with stentorian pride by John Baddeley. (Unfortunately, Jen's interior monologue in subsequent scenes is as intrusive and condescending as Harrison Ford's voice-over in the original theatrical version of Blade Runner.) The vocal cast, full of Muppet regulars (such as Dave "Gonzo" Goelz) and English actors, coheres into the kind of rock-solid ensemble for which Henson's productions are known but rarely celebrated. In other words, one does not benefit from muting the sound (especially not during passages of Trevor Jones's majestic score), though one must be prepared for a bittersweet stroll down memory lane.
THE SUPERBIT DVD
Back in 1999, Columbia TriStar released a Special Edition of The Dark Crystal on DVD, and its audio-visual presentation is not radically improved by the Superbit process on the studio's most recent reissue; the picture still begs for a committed restoration. The 2.34:1 anamorphic widescreen image betrays a speckled source print: strong colouring and detail come at a cost of dirt, pinholes, and excessive grain. A new DTS track is indistinguishable from the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (also included on the previous DVD), and frankly sucks. Bass is as resonant as a tin can with a bean in it being shaken vigorously, while dialogue, though solidly anchored, sounds harsh. Rear-channel ambience is the strongest audio element, but discrete effects are nil. (It's been a long while, but I'm positive that this film sounded different--for the better--in 70MM 6-track.) This being a Superbit disc, there are no extras--and that's a recommendation to stick with the pre-existing DVD, whose supplementary material is sublime. Originally published: March 4, 2003.
THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION DVD
Well, they finally got it right: Sony's 25th Anniversary reissue of The Dark Crystal is the film's definitive DVD presentation, an immediate and startling improvement on all previous editions. Video noise and print dandruff are a thing of the past, while a sense of chiaroscuro has been restored to Oswald Morris's cinematography. If you want to get nit-picky, this 2.38:1, 16x9-enhanced incarnation is framed negligibly tighter on the left side and bottom portion of the frame--yet it's such a small trade-off that I'm hesitant to even call it that. Meanwhile, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds much less brittle than that to which we had become accustomed. Extras on this elegantly-designed 2-disc set begin with the first platter's sedate but informative film-length commentary from conceptual artist Brian Froud, who basically comes across as the picture's third director, though not in a credit-glomming way. Froud is still incredulous that his hand-drawn title logo made it to the screen as is and humbly recalls Morris labouring to recreate the painterliness of his production sketches. If it seems like Froud had trouble seeing the forest for the trees, at least he demonstrates a firm grasp of semiotics.
Disc Two wisely recycles "The World of The Dark Crystal" (57 mins.), the excellent behind-the-scenes PBS documentary that originally aired in 1983. Here we take an extensive tour of Jim Henson's Creature Shop at what was arguably its creative peak. As a bonus, we get to observe firsthand the keen instincts of producer Gary Kurtz, later ousted from the George Lucas fold for not being sycophantic enough. Next up is the two-part "Reflections of The Dark Crystal" (37 mins. in total), which feels slightly redundant in light of Froud's yak-track despite featuring new interviews with Henson heir Brian Henson, screenwriter David Odell, puppeteer David Goelz, puppeteer Kathryn Mullen, and puppet-maker Jane Gootnick. Grouchy Frank Oz is deafeningly absent, perhaps for the better; mostly this is a somewhat guarded remembrance of Jim Henson's reach exceeding his grasp that sees the film as either a qualified success or a noble failure, depending on how you look at it.
"Extra Scenes" consists of the standard "Deleted Funeral Scenes" (4 mins.)--which were probably considered too dour for the picture's built-in audience (i.e., the Muppet crowd)--and seven "Original Language Workprint Scenes" (totalling 20 mins.), wherein the puppet performers lay down scratch tracks for their characters. (As Aughra, Oz basically does Yoda without the Orientalism.) Unlike the movie proper, these are of very poor quality, sourced from what appears to be a third-generation VHS recording. A gallery of "character illustrations" for the Skeksis and the Ur-ru finishes off the special features, while previews for Labyrinth, MirrorMask, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and "Ray Harryhausen in Color" round things out. The Dark Crystal's own trailer is AWOL on this release. Originally published: September 5, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Sony brings The Dark Crystal to Blu-ray at long last in the most supplement-rich home-video release of the film yet. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer was very obviously sourced from the same master as the most recent DVD, and HD unfortunately reveals some digital buffing that wasn't (as) apparent in standard definition. DVNR seems inordinately heavy at times, dulling edges in addition to compromising grain, though it's worth noting that puppet textures--particularly the faces of the Skeksis--are more appreciable than ever before, while an increase in shadow detail is evident from the nighttime establishing shot of the Dark Crystal Castle. Overall, it trumps an upconversion of the SD image, but sometimes subtly at best. The accompanying Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio suffers, as anticipated, from flat bass but has refreshingly substantial vocals.
All of the extras from the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD (see below) save the galleries resurface here, where they're joined by three format-exclusive supplements: "The Book of Thra", an interactive glossary that allows you to virtually collect "objects" (such as characters and entire structures) and read about them at your leisure as the movie unspools underneath; "SkekTek's Crystal Challenge", a trivia game running the length of the feature--although the questions never correspond to what's on screen--that "drains your essence" with each incorrect answer; and a new introduction from screenwriter David Odell, presented in HiDef, to the original Skeksis' language scenes in which Odell recalls that English dialogue for the creatures had to be written to synch up with their pre-recorded mouth movements, giving it a strange, "alien" quality. The back cover lists a "picture-in-picture storyboard track" that is nowhere to be found, unless of course it's a BD-Live supplement; trailers for The Water Horse, Open Seasons 1 & 2, Monster House, Surf's Up, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind round out the disc. Originally published: September 21, 2009.