Crystalline Vision: Jim Henson, The Dark Crystal and Authorship
In around 1957, Jim Henson travelled through Europe, as Michael Davis describes in his book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street and “took in puppet performances throughout Europe…impressed at how appreciated the art form was outside the United States” (2008: 83). It was this commitment to the form of puppetry and its capacity for emotional expression and innovation of technology and technique that finds such full realization in The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson, 1982) as a vividly authored high fantasy film (Fig. 1). This blog piece sets out to identify Henson’s authorial voice, and also to indicate how the film may have subsequently influenced other, very specific, films by key Henson collaborators. That appreciation, perhaps even that seriousness of recognition and emerging intent, would characterize all that Henson, and his longstanding collaborators, would go on to do with the medium of puppetry across both television and cinema with projects that would most famously include The Muppet Show (Jim Henson,1976-1981), Sesame Street (Joan Ganz Cooney & Lloyd Morrisett, 1969-), The Storyteller (Jim Henson, 1987-1988) and, in cinema, The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, 1979), The Muppets Take Manhattan (Frank Oz, 1984), The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986). The American reception in late 1982 to Henson’s feature film The Dark Crystal, and its wide European release in early 1983, (I was there at Wimbledon Odeon for it with wide-eyed, ten-year-old fascination) was muted. In a conversation that I had with Brian Henson in 2016 (for Sci Fi Now magazine on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Henson’s last feature film, Labyrinth), Henson recalled that “The Dark Crystal was received as very dark and very scary and my dad had done that deliberately” (Henson 2016). It’s this intent and its relationship to the forthcoming new Netflix prequel series produced by The Jim Henson Company, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Louis Leterrier, 2019) that fascinates (Fig. 2).
The deliberate choice of tonal approach that Jim Henson and his collaborators adopted for the original film was recognized and acknowledged at the time of its production and release: for example, production designer Harry Lange was very aware of the experimental impulse in terms of The Dark Crystal’s production design, characters and tone. Certainly, the experimentation of the film resided significantly in a vivid realism in the appearance and performance of the puppet characters and, notably, Henson brought in makeup artist Dick Smith (known for his work on The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972] and The Exorcist [William Friedkin, 1973) to consult on the creation of the puppet characters. In doing so, Smith was able to guide the Henson team towards crafting a particular fleshiness to the three-dimensional puppets. Maybe it’s that idea of fleshiness that speaks to a particular quality that audiences have always found unsettling about The Dark Crystal. Indeed, whilst it’s a seemingly distant connection to make, perhaps that fleshiness is what is both compelling and repulsive in the more recent stop-motion films of Jan Švankmajer and The Brothers Quay.
Unlike other fantasy pieces produced in the early 1980s, The Dark Crystal overtly gave expression to a particular Gothic sensibility that revels in the decrepit, the ruined, and the decaying. Consider the scenario in the film in which peace-loving pod-people are drained of their life essence by the Skeksis. It’s vampiric. It’s in these Gothic flourishes that The Dark Crystal differed from the general timbre adopted by American fantasy films of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Given the popularity of more recent supernatural/fantasy horror tv series such as Stranger Things (The Duffer Brothers, 2016-), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Robert Aguirre-Sarcasa, 2018-) and True Blood (Alan Ball, 2008-2014), one wonders if that Gothic strain might be very much a point of fundamental enjoyment for the 2019 audience as they await the release of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Online fandom is picking up on the visual richness of the revisited world of Thra. The trailer for the new series testifies to the established, mainstreaming of high fantasy that has evolved in the wake of the live action adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) and the more recent series Game of Thrones (David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, 2011-2019). By comparison, high fantasy at the time of the release of original The Dark Crystal in late 1982 had not yet found a way to connect to a mainstream audience at the time.
Critically, this forthcoming new serial renews/revisits a movie that had originally not been especially popular. The Dark Crystal arguably dwells and lingers in its pacing; in doing so offering a striking alternative to the ‘fast-paced’ qualities of 1980s action-oriented films such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981). Tellingly, when Jim Henson was promoting Labyrinth, his follow up to The Dark Crystal, he noted that his executive producer and collaborator George Lucas (of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark) tightened his looseness of pace (and that Henson would loosen Lucas’s affinity for tight pacing).
What Henson and his collaborators were originally intending with The Dark Crystal was not necessarily what was expected by audiences in 1982, for whom the Henson name was synonymous with the buoyant energy and verbal and physical humour of The Muppets. Critically, when The Dark Crystal was being developed, Frank Oz performed Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) and in rehearsing that character (regarded by Henson and co, as a vital proof of concept for the fleshy, realism of The Dark Crystal aesthetic) they originally realized the Jedi Master was too bouncy in his movement through the frame (Fig. 3).
The Dark Crystal was Henson’s feature film debut as director / co-director (he had originated the concept for the film prior to engaging Oz as his collaborator), and it was notable for being an original piece for the cinema rather than an adaptation of an existing story. The movie tells the story of a young Gelfling called Jen who is charged with the responsibility of restoring a lost shard to the titular Dark Crystal in order to restore peace and harmony to a ravaged land. It’s enough here to say that, in this respect, the plot of the film adheres to long established tropes that had so vividly become part of the language of genre cinema since the example set by the science-fiction/fantasy movie Star Wars. In addition to the presence of Oz, The Dark Crystal shared with Star Wars a producer (Gary Kurtz), and also a highly detailed and believably rendered fantasy world. In terms of filmmaking as a technological undertaking, The Dark Crystal was intended to develop and refine puppetry for the screen, augmenting it with electronics to create animatronic characters that possess a believability of gesture and expression. The characters are photo-realistically coloured and costumed as part of their design.
In the context of Henson’s previous ventures for tv and the movies, the unexpected tonal distinction of The Dark Crystal was keenly felt. Here was a mass medium entertainer who, in describing the achievement of the television series Sesame Street [to which he contributed significantly with puppet characters) said that it struck a “delicate balance between fun and learning…” (qtd. in Davis 2008: 8). Certainly, this affinity for crafting stories that combine those qualities informs the character and thematic elements of The Dark Crystal; the use of puppets charged with metaphorical potential.
Puppetry can work with particular power in re-energising familiar subjects. In his book Puppetry and Popular Culture, Scott Cutler Shershow writes of the broad tradition of puppetry that “the puppet was envisioned and re-visioned as metaphor” (1995: 2). Henson’s work, notably in The Dark Crystal, but also in his subsequent project (the feature film Labyrinth, in which the character of the Junk Lady is its most vivid example of puppet as fulfilling metaphorical function, and the tv series The Storyteller) were attuned to this. The Storyteller’s opening episode “Hans My Hedgehog” (based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale, and broadcast in 1987) vividly dramatizes and visualizes both inner and outer transformation. Staying with Shershow a little longer, he also makes a point that underpins the connection Henson found with young audiences, writing that “across an extended historical period, puppet theatre has gradually moved toward its present status as a mode of performance primarily for children as though the diminutive theatrical object recreated its audience in its own image” (1995: 3) In this association between puppets and children, Henson’s The Dark Crystal ‘disrupted’ the expectation about what constituted a film for young people: it had a grotesquerie to it alongside its whimsy and high fantasy. Indeed, Davis notes of Henson that “In his mind, he was not, and never would be, a children’s entertainer, though he embraced the idea of being a family entertainer” (2008: 259). Henson articulated this ambition many times. This ‘tension’ must account for the resonance and durability of the original feature films.
To what degree, then, will the sensibility of the newly told prequel story The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Fig. 4) tap into the ‘durability’ of the original and Jim Henson’s particular interests and preoccupations across both theme and style ? In the original film, there is humour, an evident seriousness of purpose in the overall realization and a sustained expression of optimism in the human capacity for goodness and gentility. There’s also the densely-realised production design and camera placement and movement, emphasizing and ameliorating the artifice and theatricality of puppets to the ‘reality’ of the contained world of a film frame. For all of the accretion of feature film detail and intensified emotional expression, it’s useful to hold in mind Henson’s statement that “I think of puppetry as expressing oneself through charades” (qtd. in Davis 2008: 81). This act of authorship fits with Henson in that his protagonists in The Dark Crystal continue to embody the goodness that was so vividly depicted in the Muppets. Test screenings of The Dark Crystal in 1982 acutely indicated that the audiences did not ‘get’ the film. The review of The Dark Crystal published in December 1982 in The New York Times speaks to the difficulty that audiences for the film. Vincent Canby writes that “ A lot of obvious effort has gone into this solemn fairy tale, but all of it has been devoted to the complicated technical problems involved in making a film mostly with animated puppets. The screenplay by David Odell, based on a story by Mr. Henson, is without any narrative drive whatever. It's without charm as well as interest” (1982).
Earlier in this piece I referred to a conversation that I had undertaken with Brian Henson as the basis for a magazine piece I was writing. Well, a year or so before that I had spent an afternoon in 2015 speaking with Duncan Kenworthy, a longtime associate of Jim Henson, having worked with him on The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and having produced The Storyteller.
Of The Dark Crystal, Kenworthy recalled to me something that spoke to the problematic reception, noting that “I always described it, at that time, and subsequently, as a flawed masterpiece. I can’t remember when I last saw it. It was a while ago. I remember thinking that actually almost the most interesting things for me were the environmental puppets. …The Dark Crystal was not really a script. There was no story there worth anything. It sort of evolved; you know, some sort of watery idea of good and evil but story was not really Jim’s thing. It was the visuals. I mean he had notions of slightly mystical notions about good and evil…I think one of the things that made him stay in the UK was [conceptual artist] Brian Froud’s connection to Dartmoor and the sort of world of things, moss and you know rocks, strange shapes. Jim had a very, sort of, art nouveau taste originally but it sort of turned into something a bit more basic through his connection to Brian” (Kenworthy 2016).
Kenworthy’s recollections of the film’s conceptual and visual development spoke to Henson’s authorial ‘intention’ that repeats and refrains across his work as a director. Critically, Kenworthy’s recollections perhaps speak to exactly where the film ‘subverted’ expectations: here was a genre movie that didn’t move with a certain pace and propulsion (look to the movies of Spielberg and, particularly, Lucas for that kind of kinetic energy). There isn’t room to elaborate further here, but Henson and Froud’s collaborative dynamic might well be best regarded as shared authorship, notably in expressions and applications of Nature images and imagery. That sense of Nature, in its most cosmic form, is crystallised by the character of Aughra and the sequence from The Dark Crystal that introduces the character sees her entire frame abruptly enter a mid-shot with a burst of energy that evokes memories of Muppets entering shot. Performed by Frank Oz, with vocal performance by Billie Whitelaw, Aughra is comic and otherworldly (Fig. 5) and the camera holds on a wide shot to showcase the ‘waist up’ performances of the puppet characters as the practical orrery turns behind them.
In his recently published book about the making of The Dark Crystal, Caseen Gaines records Brian Froud noting of the character of Aughra that she was “an earth goddess” (2017).Indeed, in a pleasing, and significant, connection, Aughra is akin to Yoda, the Jedi Master character first seen (now depending on which order you view the Skywalker Saga) in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Both Aughra and Yoda are wisdom figures, deeply attuned to Nature. Henson had originally been intended to perform and voice Yoda, but Oz eventually undertook the role. When Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back describes the nature of the Force he is so very much describing something also founds in the world of The Mystics that we will see in The Dark Crystal.
Indeed, Henson’s interest in Nature as subject and dramatic motif and theme echoes in Lucas’s work, registering across Lucas’s eight (and counting!) Star Wars movies and also finding expression in what we might think of as a trilogy Lucas projects: Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (Jim Wheat & Ken Wheat, 1985, Willow (Ron Howard, 1988) and Strange Magic (Gary Rydstrom, 2015) (on which Froud worked as a character designer)
With The Dark Crystal, Henson and Froud find the fullest expression of their pantheistic interest, imbuing a fantasy landscape with a real sense of connection between lifeforms. Indeed, Henson has been described by Michael Davis as “a proto environmentalist” (qtd. in Davis 2008: 4) and communicating this sensibility was there in Henson’s earliest conceptual development for The Dark Crystal. Henson had always been most focused on his fascination with what the Mystics represented and embodied rather than with what the Skeksis were motivated by.
Indeed, as I brought this piece to a conclusion, San Diego Comic Con 2019 was in full flow and as part of its promotion for the new series at the convention, Netflix released a new poster. You can view it here. Fascinatingly, in the final trailer for the new series, there is a fleeting image that recalls a moment in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (2012-2014) trilogy in which Bilbo looks out over a daunting landscape from the canopy of a tree in autumn leaf. Like that image, the shot in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance trailer captures an essential thread in high fantasy; namely the crafting or characters, settings and scenarios that emphasize the possibilities in representing Nature as both site of Romantic harmony and of Gothic-informed discord and menace.
Canby, Vincent. “Henson’s Crystal,” The New York Times (December 1982), available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1982/12/17/movies/henson-s-crystal.html.
Davis, Michael. Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street (London: Viking Penguin, 2008)
Gaines, Caseen. The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History (London: Titan Books, 2017).
Henson, Brian. Labyrinth. Sci Fi Now magazine (2016).
Kenworthy, Duncan. Interview. Sci Fi Now magazine 117 (March 2016).
Shershow, Scott Cutler. Puppetry and “Popular” Culture (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995).
James Clarke is a Visiting Lecturer on the MA Screenwriting programme at the London Film School. He has worked in HE, in experience in both teaching and course leadership roles, since 2004. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. James’ books include: Bodies in Heroic Motion: The Cinema of James Cameron (Columbia University Press) and The Year of the Geek (Aurum Press) and he regularly writes for 3D Artist and 3D World magazines. James has taught at a number of institutions, including at the University of Warwick, the University of Suffolk and the University of Sussex. James can be followed at @jasclarkewriter.