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Rough Sketches Part 1: Journey to The Dark Crystal
by Nathan Reece

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An ambitious Gelfling making it happen.

An ambitious Gelfling making it happen.
Considering what transpired last week, I was tempted to write another column about Mel Gibson, who's made some really good flicks, and who gets an erection when he thinks about murdering women and Jews (Is there an organization by now designed exclusively to protect Jewish women from Mel Gibson?).

Instead I'm going to do the first in a series of columns - which I'll do throughout the summer - on some of the darker examples of movie animation. I didn't really seek out this idea: it kind of fell together in my mind. Most of them will be about movies pertaining to specific times, which just so happen to correlate with the timing of a specific column's posting. I'll explain how the topics coexist with the timing of the postings in each particular column.

By Friday the 20th, when this column hits Matchflick, I'll have fulfilled a lifelong dream: seeing THE DARK CRYSTAL in a movie theater. And not only that, but on an original 35 mm print. For me, this is a really big deal.

When that movie was released, I was five years old. I was already acquainted with The Muppets - infact one of the first movies I saw at the theater was THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER. And back then, of course, there was no other way yet to see a new movie. I had probably already seen THE MUPPET MOVIE on TV as well, and I know I'd seen episodes of the show, if not in their original run, then in syndication.

But THE DARK CRYSTAL was something new altogether. All I knew when I saw the TV commercials for it was that it looked really cool. And I really wanted to see it. Infact it may have been the first movie that I can remember proactively wanting to see.

Not only did it have puppets, but it was made by the same people that did The Muppets. Also, its TV ads gave me my first look at a shot I would see again twice in the next year and a half (in MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL and STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK) and think was fucking awesome each time (side note - I didn't think it was fucking awesome at age 5): someone falling into a fiery pit. I would probably still think that's cool; works every time. TEMPLE OF DOOM also had someone slowly being lowered into a fiery pit, so apparently fiery pits were big in the early eighties.

I remember having a discussion with my friend's mother at the time, who also wanted to see it. I even think I remember my dad telling me he'd take me.

Well I didn't see it in the theater when I was a kid.


Nah, it's okay. I don't really know why - it's just one of those things that didn't happen.

What I didn't really know when it was on the theater, and which I found out later from Billy Dee Williams during a prime time TV special about the recent crop of fantasy movies, was that it was a movie of nothing but puppets. I'll call them puppets, as opposed to Muppets, because "Muppets" evokes one set of characters and moods that - even though they're generated by the same group of people - are a long way away from the ones in THE DARK CRYSTAL.

I first saw it when it came to video. It was one of the very first VHS movies I can remember my parents renting for me, and infact it was probably one of the first videocassettes. That, FIRST BLOOD, ANNIE, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, HE MAN compilation tapes and STAR WARS are really the ones I remember forming my introduction to home video.

And THE DARK CRYSTAL was one of the movies that was instrumental in my upbringing, seeing as how I talked my parents into renting it for me several times. I watched it when it aired on TV as well.

Then when I was eighteen and working at a video store, I got a chance to rent the movie in its original, clunky, plastic Thorn EMI box (I had a lot more about this video company in the column, but I cut it out because it was kind of irrelevant - maybe I'll do a whole column about Thorn EMI sometime). This was cool, because by then, in pretty much any video store you'd walk into, the Thorn EMI movies had been upgraded to the simple, rectangular HBO Home Video boxes that were made out of paper. Not at the video store where I worked. So I got THE DARK CRYSTAL in the very box I got it in when I was a kid, took the tape home, and was treated to horrible picture and sound quality.

Yet somehow, even as I went (by force) into adulthood, I still remembered the childhood dream of wanting to see THE DARK CRYSTAL in a theater. I guess you want to have certain experiences when you're a kid that just don't happen, and you always remember that. I was,
Two Skeksis shooting the shit between takes.

Two Skeksis shooting the shit between takes.
infact, given the first issue of the original THE DARK CRYSTAL comic book series, but I still wasn't able to see the movie in a theater.

Then, in 2004, I got my chance. I read in the paper that they were showing the movie in the screening room of the Duke campus, at midnight nonetheless! I couldn't have been more excited.

So after we took in a few movies presented by the Retrofantasma festival at Durham's Carolina Theater (one being a print of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE with some kind of foreign subtitles), my brother, his girlfriend at the time, my friend Denver and I went over to Duke, and I was truly a wide-eyed child.

Until we got there.

I don't even think - looking back on it - that the screening should've had an ad placed for it outside of the campus. This was an audience of students (probably many of them drunk) that had come to let off steam and laugh at a silly old movie starring puppets. It wasn't unlike the way people go to watch THE ROOM. And I was pissed. No disrespect intended to any Duke students or graduates, but this particular bunch was the rudest group of people I've ever seen a movie with. Especially a couple of girls in the top row, who would...not...shut...UP!!!

None of the others I went with had ever seen the movie (or at least my brother hadn't since we were little), and this was not the way to see it. I could live with the fact that it was a DVD instead of a film print, though I'd prefer the latter, but not the fact that we were watching it with fucking schmucks.

Eventually, two of us no longer saw the point in staying, walked out and went to a room in the building where some other students were playing pool. These students also thought the movie was laughable and bad. What the hell?!?

Okay, so it was a generation prior and it wasn't modern technology, but were they not able to sit there and pay respect to this movie, which was noble and pure of heart? You don't laugh at the works of Jim Henson!!!

Seriously. Eventually the other remaining viewer from our bunch and I started going "Shhhh!" to the girls in the back. And as the movie got near the dramatic finale, and they kept going (almost defiantly), the other yelled out "Please!" Well they kept going, and (this was a first for me when going to see a movie, and it's never been repeated) I turned my head and yelled "Shut the fuck up!"

Even that wasn't good enough, and then the movie was over, and I left royally pissed. My attempt at watching THE DARK CRYSTAL in a theater had been tarnished by a bundle of assholes.

It's not like it wouldn't be appropriate to show a certain amount of mirth and good-natured hysterics at one of the Muppet movies, or even LABYRINTH, 'cause those are kind of laughing at themselves anyway, and inviting the audience to laugh along. But THE DARK CRYSTAL was different.

Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and their crew had always instilled their puppet creations with a lot of adult sophistication and twisted sensibilities, even something of a dark side. After all, they started out on Saturday Night Live with an early version of "Muppets." But this movie was their first, and only, pure foray into a sinister, somber vision. Not meant to be laughed at. Maybe with in some parts, but not at.

Which was why I found this rowdy crowd of falooptydoops so irritating, other than the fact that it's simply disrespectful to do that in any movie some people might be there trying to watch. Okay, so it was free, fuck it. I guess that fact calls into question the level of reasonability my expectations possessed for a midnight group of college students, as well as being a clue (which I was reminded of recently) to why they decided to go to a movie instead of just stay in their dorm rooms and laugh. Loudly.

But when I think back on it, I can't help but reflect that the movie has basically the same story a lot of them had probably just been clamoring over in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. What were they finding so funny? Probably the puppets. Well, that's all they had back then, folks.

As you can see, I think a lot of this movie. And to be sure, I was disappointed that my attempt to see it in a theater had been somewhat thwarted. But I still left with an overall feeling of satisfaction, because at least I'd finally accomplished a childhood dream.

But I would have other chances, and that's what's kind of interesting to me. Because in the last few years, I've had three more opportunities that I know of, and the experience has still escaped me.

In the summer of 2007, the Colony theater in
The ultimate sacrifice.

The ultimate sacrifice.
Raleigh played it as part of its "Cool Classics" series, which features an assortment of retro movies. I couldn't have been more excited. However, my favorite band was also in town that night and I had yet to see them live. Shit.

Well I figured the show would be longer, I'd never seen that at all, and I'd probably get the chance to see each again. I did, but when the Carousel in Greensboro played it last year, I didn't go again. I must've had a reason, but I don't remember. Then I found out recently The Colony played it again last year. Shit!

I expressed my disappointment to the manager of The Colony, who's name, funnily enough, is also Denver. He said "Damn, son!" followed by "We'll play it again."

And uh, the upshot is...They are playing it again. On Wednesday April 18 at 7:30 pm. And I'll be there. To finally fulfill a lifelong dream the right way. My journey to THE DARK CRYSTAL will be complete.

It's strange how some movies can be really important to a person, in a lot of different ways, throughout your entire life. By the time I see it Wednesday, I'll have seen all the Henson/Oz movies in a theater (two of them - this one and LABYRINTH - in the last several months, and all of them at the Colony, having seen THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER my second time there), and had a few really special moments with this movie just within the past year.

Early last summer, I became aware that I can easily make myself addicted (when I sit down and start watching them) to original TV spots for old movies. And - you guessed it - well you probably didn't even try. But one of the ones I found was THE DARK CRYSTAL. Excellent. Then on my birthday this past August, after I got back from going out to eat with my parents, the movie was on one of the cable channels, and I caught most of it that night. Now I'll be seeing it again with a bunch of people who remember it as fondly as I do, as well as (probably) some people - young and old - that have never seen it.

The movie stands as a shining example of how animation can be skewed darker, even in what would be classified as a "children's" feature. The word "dark" in the title is evocative and quite true about the movie. The entire movie has a sinister vibe, even with the addition of a few very small laughs, and the fact that the main characters are easily identifiable with children.

I remember Roger Ebert almost seeming stunned in his review upon its initial release. His first lines were something like "You've gotta' hand it to Jim Henson and Frank Oz. They enchanted an entire generation of children with Kermit The Frog and Miss Piggy, and now they're ready to scare the pants off them with the Skeksis and the Garthim." He also ended the review by basically saying young children should beware, because they could quite possibly have nightmares after seeing some of the creatures in the movie.

I also remember that, in one of the other movie review books I got in the mid-eighties, the writers ended their review by saying "The film has scenes that may be too intense for the younger set." Warnings like this for some movies used to chill me when I was little, and still kind of fascinate me now.

Well, I never thought it was too bad when I was a kid. I guess I had other things to compare it with, like FIRST BLOOD, the first two HALLOWEEN movies, and the FACES OF DEATH series (not really, for the last one).

But I will admit, there's a scene early in the movie - where "the whimpering Chamberlain" is disrobed by the other Skeksis after losing a contest - that really bothered me as a kid. Maybe my mind was more sensitive and paranoid than it should've been at that age, but I thought they were ripping Chamberlain's skin off and not his robes. So that probably explains why it bothered me. Other than that, I was fine with it. But I could understand why the tone of the movie might get to really small children. It was far more serious a vision than the other Henson/Oz movies, or even most other children's movies in general.

I said earlier that puppets were "all they had back then." What I mean is, this was before TOY STORY (or even THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). Infact, THE DARK CRYSTAL - in my opinion - can now be looked at as a precursor to Pixar and Dreamworks. Back then, the only things I can think of that had used - or were using - all non-human characters were Claymation productions like Gumby, hand-drawn animation, and maybe the Mr. Bill cartoons. So this movie was something pretty new: a feature film with nothing but puppet characters. So, to
Here's me when I wake up and walk outside after a night of drinking.

Here's me when I wake up and walk outside after a night of drinking.
me, the movie - in blending puppets with more sophisticated themes - was a foreshadowing of what animation would eventually become.

It also tells a classic story, of a character who represents innocence and good embarking on a quest to fulfill his ultimate destiny, and thereby defeat evil. He has mentors who send him on his way, and finds help in the form of a wise but mouthy gypsy, as well as a love interest and her pet sidekick. There are real dangers for the good characters in the movie, and villains who are - more or less - compelled to follow their vicious natures. By the end, there's a true realization that's shared by all the characters, revolving around the idea that good will ultimately triumph in the end.

It's just as much a movie for adults as it is one for children. Sure, you can say the same thing about a lot of modern American animated movies. And most of them are really good. But the differences between them and movies like THE DARK CRYSTAL are substantial to me. Infact, I really wish animated features made in America would embrace the kind of ambitions this movie did.

Asia has been producing adult animated movies for decades, as well as ones - tailored more for children - that still told of darker, more complex themes and behaviors than American animated movies would ever dream. Just because it's a "kid's movie" doesn't mean it can't reach. I know that some of the Pixar movies involve issues of love, trust, friendship etc. But there's still a level of darkness and seriousness they won't go to, and that's what I'm talking about.

There's also a tendency in modern American animated movies to be filled with smart-ass characters, flippant remarks that are kind of asides to the audience, and a lot of pop culture references. All of this is done in kind of a smug way, and it's practically impossible nowadays to find an animated release that tells a story as simple as the one in THE DARK CRYSTAL, but does it in such a straightforward way, a way that doesn't cheat the purity of the story by second-guessing the audience members' ability to drop their ironic detachment and lose themselves in the narrative.

I've read that they're planning a sequel to THE DARK CRYSTAL for years. I don't know exactly what that entails, but I can't think it will involve puppetry alone. Animation has changed, and I would be shocked if it was just puppets. That being said, if it was, my heart would be filled with merriment; particularly since The Muppets are more in fashion now than they have been in several years, and it would be cool to go back and take a look at the dark side of this kind of puppetry. But the world of The Muppets also involves humans and doesn't need special effects, and I just think there's no way they'll release a movie that's done purely in this traditional format nowadays. It'll have CGI and probably some stop-motion stuff.

As long as they do it well, I won't mind. But I just hope it doesn't take anything away from the purity of the images for me. I can't imagine feeling as close to CGI creations as I did with these puppets.

I felt like those students at the campus screening were kind of shitting on my childhood in a way, but I understand that for them it was probably like watching an old Godzilla movie. I would hope everybody could try to appreciate older forms of technology, but I also understand that times change. However, I gotta' say: the new animation styles are different, and though they're capable of generating emotion and power, I'm not sure they would blend with the nature of the original THE DARK CRYSTAL.

Then again, I could be wrong. Technology aside, I also sincerely hope that they honor the characters and story of the original by keeping its level of maturity. I learned recently that the supposed sequel is not, infact, being made in America. And that's a beautiful thing, because that means it will be freed from the knowledge most characters in American animated movies seem to have nowadays: that they're living in the new millenium, that they remember the song "Tainted Love" even though they're giraffes or whatever the fuck.

Plus if it's affiliated with one of Henson's kids, as the recent THE MUPPETS was, the sequel will be fine, surely guaranteed to uphold the honor of the original movie. That's good news for today's children, who deserve such a story to be told honestly, as well as for us, the ones who grew up with THE DARK CRYSTAL.

Not that notions like these are anywhere near the interests of the studio that ends up releasing it, but it'll be a nice accident.

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Mike Thomas
Apr 20, 2012 12:31 PM
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I always thought that George Lucas had something to do with this, because it was made during his high-concept years when he was producing movies like LABYRINTH and CAPTAIN EO.

I did see it in the theaters, and my reaction was, "Huh?"

Can't wait to read your next column!

Apr 20, 2012 10:55 PM
[X] delete
You could be right about the Lucas thing, Mike. I didn't know he was one of the producers on LABYRINTH and CAPTAIN EO, and that was also when he was probably dreaming up TEMPLE OF DOOM. I haven't read anything about it, but it's entirely possible.

So you were underwhelmed when you saw it in the theater? I've never talked to someone who's actually seen this in its original release, so I'm curious! What were your expectations, and could you tell me more about your reaction?

Apr 20, 2012 11:01 PM
[X] delete
Also, thanks for the support on my columns, man: I'm glad you're liking 'em!!!
Apr 21, 2012 9:27 PM
[X] delete
Hi Nathan. I've never had near the amount of thoughts you have on Henderson and the Muppets, but we all enjoy a good story. Hope your experience with the Dark Crystal in "The Colony" was all you hoped it to be!

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Every other Friday

This is an outlet granted to me by the makers, in which I will espouse grand words, unleashing in written form the very movie-related praise and outrage I'm probably thinking about and/or discussing at the time anyway.

Other Columns
Other columns by Nathan Reece:

Led Zeppelin's Reunion Show Movie

The Night He Came Home

The Scariest Movie I've Ever Seen

And the best use of 3D in recent years is...

20 Albums That Play Like Movies

All Columns

Nathan Reece
I was born in a log cabin that was built in a sewer. After serving during wartime, I woke up from this vicious dream and learned to tapdance.
It's a commendable trade, but not a recommendable one. As I've said many a time, on one hand, I have five fingers. Yet on the other hand, I have
five fingers. Sometimes I sleep. I would probably watch more sumo wrestling if it was on TV more often. The first movie I saw at the theater was Superman
II...the last was The Terror, and this much is true. Far be it from me to call myself stupid, but if I did so (and believe me, I would), I'd say it behind
my back. Then I would figure out how I did it. Sometimes I sleep. Love, Nate.

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