The Dark Crystal is a film I remember watching as a child but couldn’t quite nail down all the plot beats all these years later. Having re-watched the film in preparation for The Dark Crystal’s prequel hitting Netflix, the film not only holds its own, it’s also a masterful example of scene composition and practical effects. Brimming with intricate world building, realistic effects and an easy to follow story, Dark Crystal is certainly a hidden gem from the 80’s; a film made with love and care that oozes charm during every minute of its run time.
The story, much like many other fantasy titles, revolves around a prophecy. At the heart of this is Jen, the last living Gelfling tasked by his Master to embark on a quest to find the missing shard of a magical crystal and restore order to the world. A world fragmented in half, with Mystics banished to the shadows thanks to the tyrannical rule of the evil bird-like Skeksis. As Jen embarks on his quest, he comes across a whole host of colourful characters, including fellow Gelfling Kira, her pet Fizzgig and the mysterious old witch Aughra. All of this builds to a climactic showdown that sees the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
Plot-wise, there isn’t an awful lot here that differentiates The Dark Crystal from other fantasy stories. It’s very standard fare and a lot of the plot beats match the Hero’s Journey archetype seen so often in these films. Where Dark Crystal excels though is with everything else that works alongside the film to polish up the story, including some nice dialogue exchanges, a distinct lack of exposition late on and some lovely action set pieces to keep the pace from stagnating.
If there was ever an argument in favour of using practical effects, The Dark Crystal is it. Shot entirely with puppets, make-up, miniatures and prosthetics, every part of the film embraces the techniques of old, and brings them to life in the best possible way. This attention to detail spills over to the costume design and even the mechanics of the puppets themselves, with working eyes and limbs that give each character a distinct personality.
I mentioned it earlier but The Dark Crystal is one of the most aesthetically pleasing films released in the 80’s. Every single frame of the film is brimming with interesting details, right down to minute, subtle elements in the background. Whether it be a watermill collecting water in the top right side of the shot or a myriad of supporting puppets dancing around a camp fire, these details help to bring the world to life and give The Dark Crystal far more character than it otherwise would.
Make no mistake about it, The Dark Crystal is not a complex, twisty-turny tale wrought with peril and surprises. When you strip away the practical effects and amazingly detailed scenes, the story itself is very basic in design. There isn’t a whole lot that stands out here but much like Star Wars, The Dark Crystal takes this simple story archetype and polishes it up, presenting it as something that feels wholly original and fresh. Ultimately, this is why The Dark Crystal works as well as it does and it’s certainly a hidden gem well worth dusting off and watching as it absolutely holds up, even to this day.