The Dark Crystal / Labyrinth
Part of the joy of the production-era making-of featurettes on the "anniversary edition" Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal DVD sets comes from seeing the filmmakers in their element: Jim Henson, his son Brian, Frank Oz, Brian Froud, Monty Python vet Terry Jones, David Bowie, a 14-year-old Jennifer Connelly, and an assortment of puppeteers and designers, all eagerly absorbed with films they knew would look like nothing before them. But the real amazement comes from the on-set footage. Both films are cunning fantasy artifices that make felt and latex sculptures look like breathing, thinking creatures. But seeing the sets from only a slightly different perspective, it's clear how thin the illusions are, and how many complicated gimmicks go into making them work. Seeing how cleverly they were conceived—and how easily they could have failed—just makes the films more magical.
For co-directors Henson and Oz, 1982's The Dark Crystal was a large, risky step away from their stable of familiar characters from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and the theatrical Muppet movies. Oz's first feature and Henson's second (after The Great Muppet Caper) began with the puppet techniques Henson and his Creature Shop had already refined, but the five-year filmmaking process was a constant process of creating and testing new materials, devices, and performance techniques to fully realize Henson's storyline. The story involves a world where an evil race of sybaritic bird-monsters called Skekis rule over a magical purple crystal in a decaying castle. When a little elfin creature named Jen learns that he's meant to fulfill a prophecy and end Skeksis rule, he begins a long, incident-filled hero's journey toward their castle.
Much of that trip simply seems designed to let Henson and Oz play with creatures and environments; the pacing is sometimes lumpy and the tone is portentous as Jen travels through landscapes richly appointed with exotic life, thanks to Froud's fantasy designs. The story is a standard fairy-tale concoction, but the New Agey philosophy about healing and heroism makes for a classic Henson story, all heart and rapturous wonder at the world's incredible possibilities.
Henson's follow-up feature—and his last big-screen directorial outing—is more polished, visually and conceptually. Connelly stars as a self-absorbed teenager immersed in her own Renaissance Faire-esque fantasy world, until goblins accept her angry invitation to come kidnap her wailing toddler brother. As she tries to get him back, the Goblin King—Bowie, strutting around in criminally tight pants and a fright wig, apparently having the time of his life—tempts and taunts her. While Labyrinth is another Froud-designed puppet proving ground, full of charmingly weird critters and colorful, child-friendly adventures, it's also a surprisingly frank exploration of the war between Connelly's sexuality and her innocent childhood daydreams. While the off-kilter rock songs Bowie wrote and performed for the film are far from his best work, his character performance is gloriously iconic, a perfect blend of predatory, leering rock star and hurt, rejected emo lover.
Still, the best part about Henson's films is the craft that went into them—25 years later, the fledgling video effects look awful, but the puppetry is still impeccably convincing, and the worlds retain their homemade, handcrafted, meticulously realized charm. Either from a technical perspective or from a storytelling angle, Henson had an unequalled talent for crafting worlds too perfectly realized to be disbelieved.
Key features: A deleted scene on Dark Crystal, plus making-of featurettes (the fascinating hour-long production-era ones, plus slicker, less interesting new half-hour ones) and generally unenlightening Froud commentaries on both.