With the triumphant return of The Muppets almost a year past now, if like myself you are an avid fan of the work of Jim Henson, many of us have been left wanting more. Well as it turns out we don’t really have to wait, because the back catalogue of work left by Henson and his Muppeteers is vast. From The Muppet Show (1976-81) to the Labyrinth(1986), the sheer diversity of creativity that was put on show is astounding. However, despite how popular the puppetry of the Henson Studios team once was, in recent years that popularity has dwindled. But then, in what seems to have become the defining mode of business for the Walt Disney Company in the last decade, the rights to all Jim Henson’s Muppet family were bought over and revived for a younger fresher audience, most of whom are completely unfamiliar with the Muppets and their vast body of work. I first became aware of Jim Henson’s work when I was a child and I was left doubled in two with laughter as I watched re-runs of The Muppet Show. The slap-stick comedy and idiocy of the entire show still makes me laugh. In fact, when I attended the newest Muppets offering last February, I seemed to find it a whole lot more amusing than most of the children. But perhaps that says more about me than anyone else.
With the Muppets now fresh in my mind, I was left reminiscing of all the other Henson productions I had once enjoyed. Muppets Christmas Carol (1992) with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. Legend! Muppets Treasure Island (1996) with Billy Connolly giving a sterling performance as Billy Bones….”Jim, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jim, Jim, Jim!” Then I began to recall the uber-camp and seriously underappreciated movie, Labyrinth. Although, my memories of this particular film mostly centred around David Bowie’s unnervingly large bulge. At times, it literally steals the show. Setting aside the odd moment of hilarity, such as Bowie’s Magic Dance, Labyrinth has very little to offer: it’s badly scripted, poorly acted and a serious car crash from beginning to end. But it’s not without charm, and the skill of the puppeteers on display is undeniable. But then I came to remember a film that was nothing more than a few short, but lasting and frightening images in my mind: The Dark Crystal (1982.)
The Dark Crystal was the first live-action feature length film to be made without the appearance of a single living person. The entire cast consisted of hundreds of puppets designed specifically for the film, some of the puppets where so large and heavy, that they could only be manned for five minutes at a time. Unable to remember much about this film, despite having watched it numerous times as a child, I was intrigued to rediscover what it was that frightened me so much. I was hoping that it wasn’t another oversized bulge…
However you can rest assured that what makes this film perhaps not great but definitely worth a watch, is not some eighties pop icons jock strap. The Dark Crystal despite all its flaws – of which there are many – is a seriously good movie. As always the film’s cast of puppeteers are masters in their craft. The movements at times are so perfectly flawless you will be left wondering how they made it work. For me, trying to figure out how just how they make the puppets seem so very much alive has always been part of the fun. Unlike our friendly chums “The Muppets” the characters on show here are often twisted and cruel, and the world which they inhabit is hostile and alien. In films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Henson seems to have allowed the darker recesses of his mind to run amuck. The Skeksis, the villains of this tale, would leave me feeling terrified as a kid. While age has numbed me to such feelings dread, there is still something completely unsettling about the appearance and actions of the Skeksis. Living far beyond their natural life span through the power of the the Dark Crystal, the Skeksis are sinister and their evil ambition for eternal life has left them broken and twisted, like living relics. The scene in which a Skeksi is stripped of his clothing and banished from the castle of the crystal is truly disturbing when he is revealed to be a meek and skeletal figure, running on nothing more than hate and grotesque ambition.
The good guys come to us in the form of the mystics. Large hippo like creatures, who share a similar world view to that of Yoda. Yoda was in fact voiced by the same actor (Frank Oz) and seems to have had a clear influence on the mythology of the mystics within the Dark Crystal. When they die they achieve eternal life by become part of the spirit world and vanish in the exact same way as Yoda after he draws his last breath. The hero of the movie I found to be somewhat saccharin and annoying. His childlike innocence seems to be no real threat to a band of creatures that strap their slaves to a chair and steal their essence. These scenes are truly frightening still. However, while there may be many aspects of the film that I feel are weak and rushed, such as the narrative and dialogue, the unbridled grandeur of Henson’s vision is completely astounding. The set pieces that come alive in ways you would never expect bring moments of glee to a fantastical journey. The effort and skill shown by the puppeteers is something to be admired, and in world where cold and lifeless CGI has become the norm, we should celebrate a by-gone era of magical puppetry. Henson and his team gave people something that could be enjoyed by all. So while his vision is often fuzzy and unclear – again Bowie – he never fails to take his audience on a fantastical journey that will bring a smile to even the most hardened of faces.
So if you get the chance, give this movie a go. While people may claim that Labyrinth is far better, that claim is based purely on the ultra-kitsch factor of the film. The Dark Crystal stands as one of Henson’s greatest achievements and should be appreciated as such. Then if like me your left wanting more, you can see the great puppeteers work in the short lived TV series The Storyteller(1988) -also recommended for fans of John Hurts dulcet tones- or The Witches (1990), starring Anjelica Houston.