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MOVIE INFO

Director:
Jim Henson, Frank Oz
Cast:
John Baddeley, Stephen Garlick, David Buck, Barry Dennen, Percy Edwards, Michael Kilgarriff, Lisa Maxwell, Joseph O'Conor, Billie Whitelaw, Thick Wilson, Jim Henson, Frank Oz
Written By:
Jim Henson, David Odell

Tagline:
Another World, Another Time ... In the Age of Wonder.

Synopsis:
In another time, The Dark Crystal - a source of Balance and Truth in the Universe - was shattered, dividing the world into two factions: the wicked Skeksis and the peaceful Mystics. Now, as the convergence of the three suns approaches, the Crystal must be healed, or darkness will reign forevermore! It's up to Jen - the last of his race - to fulfill the prophecy that a Gelfling will return the missing shard to the Crystal and destroy the Skeksis' evil Empire. But will young Jen's courage be any match for the unknown dangers that await him?

Box Office:
Domestic Gross
$40.577 million.

MPAA:
Rated PG

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
Audio:
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby 2.0
English Monaural
Subtitles:
English
Spanish
Closed-captioned

Runtime: 94 min.
Price: $19.95
Release Date: 10/5/1999

Bonus:
• "The World of The Dark Crystal" Making of Documentary
• Deleted Funeral Scenes
• Character Concept Drawings and Profiles
• Original Character Language Work Print Scenes
• Isolated Music Score by Trevor Jones
• Theatrical Trailers
• Cast and Crew Biographies
• Talent Files
• Production Notes


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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


The Dark Crystal: Special Edition (1982)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 26, 2003)

Wizards and elves, magic and mischief: until 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, fantasy films that tend along those lines never did much for me. Yes, I like computer games that use such themes, but while I can see why these kinds of stories entertain others, I can't muster any interest in them myself.

But hope springs eternal, so I occasionally give various examples of the genre another shot. I first viewed 1982’s The Dark Crystal when I was a mere lad of 15. As far as I remember - the sands of time make this pretty clouded - I looked forward to the movie but I ultimately didn't think much of it. I can't recall the specifics, but I believe I felt that it was a pretty lackluster picture.

Fast-forward almost seventeen years and I once again give Crystal a shot when it first appeared on DVD. Even though I knew I didn't like it too much when I first saw it, I also knew that this film was something of a "cult classic" by that point, so I figured there was a good shot I'd appreciate it now more than I did then.

But that didn’t occur. My second screening of Crystal didn’t enchant me anymore than the first. I wanted to like Crystal, but I just couldn't. While I respected the artistry and the effort that went into making the film, frankly, I found it to be an overly somber and dull affair. At literally no point during the movie did I find it to be enchanting or delightful; I stuck with it, but those 93 minutes seemed to last a loooooong time.

One significant fault I found with the film related to its plot, or lack thereof. Crystal begins with a tremendous amount of exposition. Fair enough; since the races involved - wise Mystic, evil Skeksis, and thin Gelfling - and their issues are all clearly alien to us. This meant the filmmakers needed to take a while to bring us up to speed. Unfortunately, once all this exposition ends, the film continues upon its slow and uneventful pace.

There just isn't a whole lot happening here. Our protagonist, Gelfling Jen (voiced by Stephen Garlick, puppeted by director Jim Henson), needs to find a shard of a crystal; once he does that, he must return it to the larger crystal from whence it came. The Skeksis try to stop him. The end.

Okay, this minimalist description may not be completely fair; after all, lots of movies have plots that can be similarly reduced. Hey, one could even break down The Lord of the Rings to that level if desired, and it’ll ultimately fill nine hours of screen time! However, Rings also show us exciting and provocative events that occur along that path. For the most part, that's not the case with Crystal.

Actually, I think the film's single greatest flaw stems from the many dull characters who populate the picture. Worst offenders in this regard are Jen and his Gelfling honey Kira (voiced by Lisa Maxwell, puppeted by Kathryn Mullen). These roles seem almost completely devoid of any distinguishing features or anything to make them interesting; they're both total duds. The audience is supposed to like them and root for them, but I couldn't have cared less what happened to them; they were two of the most anonymous heroes I've yet encountered.

In and of itself, a lackluster hero is not a fatal flaw for a film. Indeed, Disney films frequently feature "ciphers" such as Jen and Kira in the lead roles; such bland stars make it easier for audience members to project themselves into the roles, and the filmmakers let spicier supporting characters pick up the slack. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen in Crystal, as most of the other roles aren't substantially more interesting. Wizardress Aughra (voiced by Billie Whitelaw, puppeted by Frank Oz) simply looks hideous and displays a fairly caustic attitude; other than that, she lacks any personality. The Skekses could have been - and probably should have been - fairly compelling, but they're pretty much nonentities as well. The main Skeksis we encounter is the Chamberlain (none of the Skekses feature names in the film), but the only reason he stands out is because of a vocal affectation (voiced by Barry Dennen, puppeted by Oz); he lacks personality other than in a vaguely conniving manner.

To be honest, the only character who interested me emotionally in the least was Kira's pet Fizzgig. Even then, I think I only cared about him because he looked like a dog, and I love dogs; the character itself lacked much interest.

Ultimately, The Dark Crystal stands as a wonderful technical achievement, but the film itself lacks spirit and heart. It's clear that the filmmakers worked very hard to create a different world, and they succeeded in doing so. However, they seemed so concerned with the techniques that they neglected to offer any story or characters who substantially involved the audience. It's a film that broadens the horizons of what can be done with puppets, but instead of worrying about what they should do with the story, the filmmakers were more concerned with what they could do and the resulting movie suffered for that.


The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio C+/ Bonus B

The Dark Crystal appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Much of Crystal looked absolutely gorgeous, but some nagging flaws forced me to lower my grade.

Sharpness seemed excellent. The movie always came across as nicely well defined and accurate. At no time did I discern any issues related to softness, as the flick stayed crisp and distinct. Jagged edges and moiré effects also created no concerns, and I detected no signs of edge enhancement.

Due to the production design, Crystal offered a fairly subdued palette that tended toward an “earthy” look. Within that spectrum, the tones looked very accurate and lifelike, and when the hues brightened, they really came to life. For example, the scenes in the Skeksis palace demonstrated many gorgeous colors; check out their purple robes to see what I mean. Black levels consistently came across as wonderfully deep and rich, while shadow detail looked appropriately dense but never overly thick.

Based on all these elements, Crystal should have earned an “A” and could even have approached “A+” territory; the majority of the image truly looked amazing. It lost points due to the prevalence of print flaws. The picture occasionally seemed grainier than I’d expect, and it displayed a significant number of specks and bits of grit. These didn’t seem overwhelming, and many of them resulted from the processes used. An effects-intensive flick, Crystal featured more than a few composite shots, and those images tend to suffer from more source defects than usual.

However, specks and grit showed up even during scenes with no such work. The quality of the print never became atrocious, but it remained moderately problematic. The loveliness of every other element meant that I felt The Dark Crystal still merited a “B+”, but with a little cleaning, this image could have earned a substantially higher mark.

Unfortunately, the audio on this disc didn't come close to competing with the often spectacular image. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack favored the forward soundfield, and that domain offered a pretty wide spectrum of sound. The audio spread nicely across the front speakers, though it didn’t blend together terribly well. Elements tended to favor a “speaker-specific” formation and they rarely meshed with each other to any convincing degree. Nonetheless, the soundscape seemed nicely broad, and it opened up matters fairly well.

Surround usage appeared limited. For the most part, the rear speakers simply reinforced forward elements. That meant mostly music from the surrounds, though some effects – such as the chant of the Mystics – also cropped up back there. Nonetheless, this remained a very forward-oriented track.

While the properties of the soundfield seemed more than acceptable for a movie from 1982, the audio quality came across as less positive. Overall, the tracks appeared somewhat thin and shrill. Speech sounded hollow and moderately edgy at times. I never found it difficult to understand what was said, but the dialogue nonetheless came across as a bit rough.

Effects followed suit. They generally seemed flat and without much distinction. They displayed a little distortion at times but usually appeared reasonably clear. Music was similarly bland, as the score lacked much life. It didn’t display any significant flaws other than the absence of pizzazz, though; the music simply came across as dull. Some light and boomy bass appeared at times, but not to any significant degree. The soundfield of The Dark Crystal seemed vivid enough to earn the audio a “C+”, but the very spotty quality of the audio caused concerns

Happily, The Dark Crystal rebounds when we examine the supplemental features available on this DVD. First up is a very good 57-minute and 21-second documentary about the film called The World of The Dark Crystal. This piece was created at about the same time as the film itself. It consists of a nice balance of interviews with all the key creators and some wonderful footage shot on the set of the film. The latter really is fun, since it gives us a firsthand look at just how Henson and company worked their magic. The documentary talks a little about the origins and inspirations for the project, but the nuts and bolts are the focus, which seems appropriate. Many times I don't care for documentaries that are from the same time period as the films themselves - they usually lack historical perspective - but this one works well.

The DVD also includes deleted funeral scenes. These come from a section early in the film when both the leaders of the Skeksis and the Mystics die. They're actually fairly powerful scenes, so I'm not sure why they were omitted; the filmmakers probably thought they didn't move along the story, but that's just my guess. Since they come from a workprint, the quality of the clip isn't great, but it's still an interesting piece of footage.

More curious are seven scenes that appear in the finished film. They are offered in the supplemental section in their workprint form and they have the original language on them. To be frank, I'm not completely clear what this is supposed to mean. Sometimes we hear bits where the Skekses usually speak a language other than English, and when we see Aughra, Frank Oz performs her voice, just as he did on the set. (Oz did the physical puppeteering for the character, but someone else gives her voice during the released film.) However, some of the voices seem to be the dubbed ones we hear on the finished print.

My guess is that the workprint offers the voices the way the filmmakers originally intended them to be when the film went into release but that they changed them after the workprint was completed. I figure that they decided to make the Skekses speak English because there were too many subtitles, and they lost Oz's performance because it sounded too much like Yoda (the character of Aughra shares some similarities with that Jedi master as well, so it probably came across as too much of a rip-off). These are just my theories, so if anyone knows the facts, I'd love to hear them.

We get a few more supplements as well. One section displays drawings of the Mystic and Skeksis characters and offers very short biographies of them. This part's interesting because it shows these characters do have names, despite the fact we never hear them in the film. The talent file provides very basic biographies of co-directors Henson and Oz and conceptual designer Brian Froud. These are pretty lame, since they offer almost no information.

The DVD also offers Trevor Jones' isolated score on its own, and we find a plethora of trailers. Two full-length Crystal trailers are here – one American, the other European - as well as a "teaser" clip for the film. In addition, trailers for fellow Henson projects (and CTS releases) The Storytellers and Labyrinth are also included. Finally, the DVD's booklet provides some brief but interesting production notes; although these are more limited in scope than most booklet notes, they're still worth a read.

Recommendation time: well, if you don't know much about the film and you're going to let my opinion influence you, you won't get a positive one. I found The Dark Crystal to be a visually imaginative, technically well executed piece of work, but it's characters lacked interest and the story seemed uncompelling; I didn't enjoy the movie and I doubt it's something I'll watch again. However, if you know you like the film and you just want to know if the DVD's any good, the answer's "yes;" although the tinny audio disappoints, the image looks excellent and the DVD provides some very fine supplemental materials. The movie itself is something of a dog, but the DVD proves to be a winner.

To rate this film, visit the Superbit review of THE DARK CRYSTAL