Saturday, April 17, 2010

“Trial by Stone!”

Been a while since we had a fantasy flick in the rotation. 1982’s The Dark Crystal is a good enough way to return to the genre. A high concept Jim Henson film that’s light on humor, big on adventure and featuring a cast of puppets and no human characters, it’s a big tonal shift from the Maven of Muppets.

Ok, so on an ancient and distant world called Thra (which is very much not Earth because it has 3 suns and no humans), there was a race of beings called urSkeks, who ruled benevolently for centuries until, 1000 years ago, during the Great Conjunction of the suns, they cracked the Crystal of Truth (which gave them their power) and a shard of it went missing. Turns out this was a very bad thing, because the urSkeks split into two new races, the tyrannical, lizard/bird-like Skeksis and the gentle, peaceful and pretty much useless Mystics. The Skeksis hearing a prophecy that they will be undone by a Gelfling (basically elves), decide to genocide their asses to prevent it. (you know, a kids movie).

Unfortunately for the Skeksis, one Gelfling lad is still alive, and raised by the Mystics so that the prophecy can be fulfilled. ADVENTURE! ensues.

Jen: Performed by Jim Henson and voiced by Stephen Garlick, Jen is our Hero. An orphan raised by the Mystics for whom a great destiny awaits, he’s pretty much your standard fantasy hero. This isn’t exactly terrible, since Jen isn’t smash-your-own-face-in annoying, but he’s also just kind of there. Not bad, but not awesome, I guess is the gist of him. He’s got the missing shard of the Crystal and its up to him to keep it safe.

Kira: Performed by Kathryn Mullen and voiced by Lisa Maxwell, Kira is another Gelfling that Jen stumbles upon along the way. Yes, turns out the Skeksis weren’t actually that efficient in their campaign of genocide. Kira’s a little more experienced in the ways of the world and becomes a useful ally for Jen, and a little more… (well, they are the last two survivors of their people, so its pretty obvious)

Fizzgig: Performed by Dave Goelz and voiced by Percy Edwards, this little fuzz ball is Kira’s pet. He’s okay in my book.

Aughra: Performed by Frank Oz and voiced by Billie Whitelaw, Aughra is a crazy old soothsayer, wise woman and general “keeper of secrets.” Jen is told to seek her out to find out how to save the world, and while he finds her and learns just how much is at stake, he also doesn’t learn as much as he’d like, since the Skeksis’s goons crash the place.

The Chamberlain: Performed by Frank Oz and voiced by Barry Dennen, this guy is the Skeksis the movie follows, and he’s pretty awesome. Not because he’s badass, but because of the opposite. He is a sniveling, weasely douche who makes a claim for the throne when the Emperor Skeksis dies, loses, gets stripped of his rank and exiled, and happens to run into Jen & Kira. You bet its awesome, because he’s just so damn creepy. And he’s got a verbal tic that has him going “hhmmm?” all the damn time, which is both annoying and awesome at the same time. Its not even something you can put in onomatopoeia.

The General: Performed by Dave Goelz and voiced by Michael Kilgarriff, the General is pretty damn badass. After the death of the Emperor, he’s the one who wins the ordeal of Trial By Stone to become the new ruler. He’s also got an army of Garthim at his command, which…well, they’re basically umber hulks. Dude’s hardcore.

Directed by Jim Henson, Frank Oz and (uncredited) Gary Kurtz, the movie is masterfully shot. Not only is it ambitious, but they really work around the limitations of puppets to really make it seem plausible. And the effects have aged very, very, very well. The pacing does slow down a bit in the middle after Jen meets Kira, but its nothing serious.

The overall look of the film was a collaboration between Jim Henson and Brian Froud (who also worked with Henson on Labyrinth) and the world these two built is simply stunning on a conceptual level.

Story by Jim Henson and screenplay by David Odell, the plot is…well, its nothing complicated and trundles along predictable lines. There’s not a whole lot to Jen & Kira’s characters and the Mystics are, to be honest, really boring. Although this movie also gives us the Skeksis, which are constantly entertaining when they’re on screen because of their decadent villainy. The plot does stray into some pretty dark corners here and there too, which is both pretty cool and creepy at times. This is a good thing, since family movies should never condescend toward the audience.

The score by Trevor Jones is big, sweeping, majestic and a little eerie. The main theme is incredibly memorable and the whole sound fit’s the movie perfectly. The sound effects are outstanding as well, which is no surprise because it was headed up by Ben Burtt, who’s so good at his job that he can get nominated for sound awards in his sleep.

So yeah, The Dark Crystal is one hell of a film. Its strange, sure, and lacking the lighter tone of the later Labyrinth, the movie tracks its own path to display Henson’s extremely ambitious vision. It gets weird, yes, but it embraces that aspect and avoids ever getting too cheesy, even if it does tread familiar story trails. All of these are good things, especially since a sequel has been rumored for years at this point.

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