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Jim Henson and Frank Oz
Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw, Michael Kilgarrif, David Buck, Barry Dennen, Thick Wilson, Frank Oz, Jim Henson
Writing Credits:
Jim Henson, David Odell

Another World, Another Time... In the Age of Wonder.
Rated PG.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
English, Spanish

Runtime: 93 min.
Price: $26.95
Release Date: 3/11/2003

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Dark Crystal: Superbit (1982)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 7, 2003)

Wizards and elves, magic and mischief: until 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, fantasy films that work 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 much 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 gave 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 was aware that this film had become 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.

Unfortunately, that didn’t occur. My second screening of Crystal didn’t enchant me anymore than the first. So why’d I give it a third viewing via this new 2003 Superbit DVD release? Perhaps I figured the third time would be the charm and I’d finally start to like Crystal

Or maybe not. 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 94 minutes seemed to last a looong 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 caustic attitude; other than that, she lacks any personality. She seems shrill and obnoxious and nothing else.

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 personality.

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 F

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 spectacular image. The Dark Crystal offered both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. I detected no substantial differences between the pair, as they sounded largely identical to me.

The tracks 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.

As with virtually all Superbit releases that don’t come as part of their “Deluxe” line, The Dark Crystal includes absolutely no supplements. The prime omission from the original stems from the absence of a fine documentary, and we also lose an isolated score, deleted scenes, and a number of other elements.

The absence of those materials makes the Superbit version of The Dark Crystal a tough sell. As for the film, I found The Dark Crystal to offer a visually imaginative, technically well executed piece of work, but its characters lacked interest and the story seemed uncompelling. Frankly, the movie bored me.

The DVD seemed fairly good in regard to technical merits, however. Picture quality was excellent except for the presence of too many print flaws. Audio displayed a fairly broad soundfield – in the front, at least – but the sound seemed tinny and thin much of the time. The Superbit DVD included absolutely no supplements.

For that reason, I would recommend the original DVD over the Superbit version. In theory, the Superbit concept seems sound; it removes extra materials to allow the most “breathing room” for the movie itself, all in a theoretical attempt to improve visual and auditory quality. However, this makes much less difference when the source materials show as many flaws as we find during The Dark Crystal. All the bits in the world won’t compensate for the frequent speckles or the moderately shrill audio. The Superbit format simply can’t overcome source concerns. With a lower list price and a fine complement of extras, the original DVD of The Dark Crystal remains the best choice for fans, as the Superbit edition doesn’t seem to offer any substantial picture or sound improvements.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.05 Stars Number of Votes: 20
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