Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Our ongoing Sesame Street Week has us thinking about movies starring puppets.
For a movie helmed by Jim Henson that’s full of puppets, The Dark Crystal is about as far away from cheerful Sesame Street as it’s possible to be. The film is dark, both visually and narratively, and the puppet creatures that inhabit the planet Thra closer resemble the monsters of nightmares than the likes of Elmo. A group of skulking, bird-like brutes called Skeksis rule and terrorize Thra, using the power of the dark crystal to replenish themselves. Their thoughtful counterparts, the wise, wizard-like Mystics, have lived in exile for close to the 1,000 years since the dark crystal shattered, establishing the planet’s current reign of evil.
Jen, an elf-like creature who was taken in by the Mystics after his people—The Gelflings—were slaughtered by the Skeksis, learns he’s “the chosen one” to find the missing crystal shard and restore harmony to the planet. On his adventure, Jen traipses through the remarkably lush, organic world of Thra, making friends and encountering an array of delightful creatures. With plant and animal puppets wriggling, rolling, and gamboling through a boggy environment, the flora and fauna of The Dark Crystal set its world apart from other puppet settings.
Working from the illustrations of Brian Froud, Henson and his co-director and collaborator Frank Oz spent years creating a deep, and deeply imaginative, world for Jen to travel through. Each Skeksis, Mystic, Gelfling, and other assorted creature is a blend of puppet and robot, controlled by several people to operate the movement, body parts, facial expression, and eyes. Handling the animatronic puppets were dancers, mimes, clowns, and acrobats, who spent months devising how characters would move and walk.
Jen faces some terrifying setbacks in his adventure. The Skeksis are the stuff of nightmares, their actions even creepier than their appearance. As well as enslaving Podlings—an innocent race of potato-inspired creatures—the Skeksis put the scrubby little guys to horrific use. And the Podlings aren’t the only adorable creatures to suffer at the hands of the Skeksis: One particularly sad scene shows Jen being gently saved after falling into a pool of water by a friendly, round, slug-like creature that rises up underneath him, setting him safely on shore. Alongside the helpful creature are smaller, very cute, slug babies. The film match-cuts to the small creature’s cooked body on a platter served at the Skeksis’ dinner.
These sorts of chilling instances make one wonder if The Dark Crystal was less for children and more for adults. But Henson’s vision for the film, according to Oz, was to return children’s stories to the darkness of the original Grimm’s fairy tales. “He thought it was fine to scare children,” Oz told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.” Like Hayao Miyazaki’s films, The Dark Crystal doesn’t shy away from telling a children’s story with dark terrors, as well as challenges, to overcome.
Availability: The Dark Crystal is available to watch in full on YouTube. It’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.