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The Dark Crystal: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Review

The Dark Crystal (1982) movie poster - click to buy The Dark Crystal

Theatrical Release: December 17, 1982 / Running Time: 93 Minutes / Rating: PG

Directors: Jim Henson, Frank Oz

Puppeteers: Jim Henson (Jim, High Priest), Kathryn Mullen (Kira), Frank Oz (Aughra, Chamberlain), Dave Goelz (Fizzgig, General, Dying Emperor, Podling), Steve Whitmire (Scientist), Louise Gold (Gourmand), Brian Muehl (Ornamentalist, Urzah, Dying Master), Bob Payne (Historian), Mike Quinn (Slave Master), Tim Rose (Treasurer), Jean-Pierre Amiel (Weaver), Hugh Spight (Cook, Landstrider), Swee Lim (Hunter, Landstrider) / Voice Cast: Stephen Garlick (Jen), Lisa Maxwell (Kira), Billie Whitelaw (Aughra), Percy Edward (Fizzgig), Barry Dennen (Chamberlain), Michael Kilgarriff (General), Jerry Nelson (High Priest, Dying Emperor), Steve Whitmire (Scientist), Thick Wilson (Gourmand), Brian Muehl (Ornamentalist), John Baddeley (Historian), David Buck (Slave Master), Charles Collingwood (Treasurer), Brian Muehl (Dying Master), Sean Barrett (Urzah), Joseph O'Conor (Narrator, UrSkeks)

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By Albert Gutierrez

From what I've seen, fantasy films of the 1980s were hit-and-miss. There were visual spectaculars like Legend that were hampered by dodgy acting, silly dialogue, and dated music. There were movies like The Princess Bride that delivered excellent acting, inspired dialogue, and a timeless score.
Then, there are those gray area films like Willow, Ladyhawke, and The NeverEnding Story, where the viewer isn't sure what's happening on screen but it looks amazing and is enjoyable on some level.

Jim Henson's grand foray into the fantasy world, The Dark Crystal was released in December of 1982 to an overwhelmed public still in awe over a friendly guy named E.T.. It wasn't until subsequent home video releases that Crystal received its due, becoming a cult classic, which it remains twenty-five years later.

My first exposure to The Dark Crystal came during the last couple of weeks of second grade, when one does nothing but watch movies and clean out desks. Eight-year-olds usually react in one of two ways to a movie like Dark Crystal; they may scream in terror and hide somewhere safe or they may widen their eyes and remain transfixed to the screen. Unlike the majority of my classmates, I chose the latter. After a mere ten minutes, only five students were left watching, so somebody had the bright idea to eject the video and put in something we all could enjoy. Those first ten minutes remained fixed in my mind, leading me to finally scout out the film two years ago and watch it in its entirety.

Jen, a young Gelfling, must restore the shard and heal the Dark Crystal. The new Skeksis Emperor wishes for the prophecy to go unfulfilled and allow the Skeksis to remain in power.

In what remained familiar to me more than a decade later, the movie opens with a monotonous but creepy narrator setting up a story in "another world, another time, in the age of wonder." We're treated to morbid visuals of a dead, decaying universe, with ominous clouds and a dark castle. Inside the castle live the Skeksis, a cruel bird-like race that looks to the Dark Crystal as a source of power and life. Countering these beings are the gentle and peaceful Mystics, who study magic and protect others. These two groups of creatures, Skeksis and Mystics, were "formed" a thousand years earlier when the crystal cracked. When our story begins, as the planet's three suns are soon to line up again, only ten members of each species lives.

Among the Mystics is Jen, a young Gelfling believed to be the last of his kind. Before the wise, old Mystic that raised him dies, he entrusts Jen with a mission to restore the Dark Crystal. To do this, Jen must first acquire a shard from Aughra, a female who is studying the path of the suns in anticipation for the realignment she calls The Great Conjunction. In "calling" the Crystal with a flute, Jen and Aughra are attacked by evil Garthims, sent by the Skeksis. Aughra is taken prisoner, while Jen narrowly escapes and meets up with Kira, a female fellow Gelfling who was raised by tiny Podlings within the trees.

With more Garthims on the offensive and newly-gained knowledge of an ancient prophecy stating a Gelfling will bring an end to their enemy race by restoring the crystal, Jen and Kira journey on. Meanwhile, some Skeksis politics occupy our attentions, as two hoping to become Emperor have a "trial by stone", in which the loser, a banished Chamberlain, encounters the Gelflings, saves them, and offer his help as Jen and Kira approach the Gelfling City castle with high hopes but still more opposition.

Laser Eye Surgery: "Dark Crystal" style! The planet's three suns are about to align in "The Dark Crystal."

Fantasy films often seem limited in the stories they tell, which are almost always about a young hero discovering he is destined to take a great journey and restore world peace. The Dark Crystal follows this pattern, but provides important subplots
and themes beyond the conventional good versus evil, like genocide and the corrupting natures of power and fear. Keeping to themselves and answering to a higher calling, the enigmatic Mystics strike a monk-like presence in a movie where religion holds a subtle but significant role. One can easily read The Great Conjunction as a symbol for Christianity's Trinity, but the film is open to wide interpretation.

Those not enamored with the film's story might be drawn by its visuals. Nearly everything on screen is either a puppet or intricate costume and The Dark Crystal was billed as the first live-action film without any human characters. The Mystics are amphibian-like, the Skeksis assume a vulture's physique, and both are anthropomorphic in movement. Given the early 1980s' limitations on CGI and less-developed puppetry, it's quite remarkable to watch an entire film filled with such stunning effects and believable fantastic creatures.

Despite a rich plot, breathtaking sequences, a beautiful score, and an impressively complex visual palette, The Dark Crystal doesn't thoroughly engage. The frightfully dull color palette, thin characters, and limp pacing all weigh on viewers' attentions. Scenes play out to show off techniques and are stretched out with expository dialogue. Coupled with the creatures' slow, graceful manner, sequences that should only take a few minutes in real life feel twice as long as depicted, with the film ending up too long, even at a modest 93 minutes. In spite of its faults, Crystal still stands out in Jim Henson's filmography, illustrating the man behind the Muppets could wear the cap of a serious filmmaker in using innovative tools to tell a fantasy story that was both appropriate for the era and yet ahead of its time.

One of those movies that sells well enough to stay forever stocked on selective store shelves, The Dark Crystal seems to get treated to a new DVD edition every few years. Its initial 1999 DVD lived up to its "Special Edition" banner. Four years later, it was reissued in a movie-only Superbit release and later as a Collector's Edition with a nice array of non-DVD goodies like a senitype and reproduction of Henson's concept notepad. Last year, Dark Crystal was repackaged as part of a new box set with Henson's Labyrinth and his company's recent MirrorMask. What could possibly prompt Sony Pictures Home Entertainment to release Crystal yet again? The most common reasons today are to celebrate an anniversary or promote a related new movie. For Crystal, it's the former that explains this two-disc 25th Anniversary Edition re-release, as a sequel (titled The Power of the Dark Crystal) intended to soon enter production for a 2008 theatrical debut is not at all mentioned here.

Buy The Dark Crystal: 25th Anniversary Edition on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Japanese)
Subtitles: English, French, Japanese; Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 14, 2006
Suggested Retail Price: $24.96
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)
Black Keepcase in Cardboard Box

VIDEO and AUDIO

Video quality on this edition, which touts a new high-definition remaster, definitely surpasses previous releases. Appearing in 2.35:1 and enhanced for 16x9 displays, The Dark Crystal is a very earthy picture with shades of brown and green dominant over a few standout colors. They are more defined and natural in this transfer than earlier ones. Noise and artifacts have been reduced, as has some edge enhancement issues of earlier releases, but the picture is also slightly darker than before. This version differs from the 2003 Superbit transfer which merely presented the film at a higher bit rate rather than treating it to a traditional remaster. The presentation here is for the most part sharp and clear, though a few scenes actually look softer than they do in older incarnations.

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds the same as older editions and while there are still a few hisses and echoes, the mix is fine. It should be noted that this DVD not only loses the English and Spanish Dolby Surround tracks, but Superbit's DTS track is gone as well. In their places are a new Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital track and Brian Froud's commentary.

Jim Henson sat down in 1982 to discuss "The World of 'The Dark Crystal'." How many puppeteers does it take to make Jen walk realistically? Apparently four. Kathryn Mullen is one of many performers to offer "Reflections of 'The Dark Crystal'."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The movie's original Special Edition DVD was essentially a port of the features-packed laserdisc, offering a vintage making-of documentary,
a multitude of workprint scenes, character galleries, trailers, and an isolated score. These bonuses would appear on each subsequent DVD release until now, as a few extras are dropped with the addition of a few more.

New to this DVD is an audio commentary by conceptual designer Brian Froud. As on his new Labyrinth track, he is on his own but never runs out of material to discuss. The world, the creatures, and the entire design of Dark Crystal stemmed from his imagination based on a few early treatments by Jim Henson. Thus, his commentary features a wealth of information. He discusses the designs' origins, how many of them were constructed and used within filming, and his story input. While his remarks mostly fall on the technical side, at times he offers great production stories (such as Henson battling the Marketing Department, who were concerned about merchandise and the target audience) as well as special memoirs about how the film impacted his life and career.

Familiar to existing DVD owners is the 1982 made-for-television documentary "The World of The Dark Crystal" (57:23). It offers plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards, and concept art, interspersed with interviews by Henson, Froud, Wendy Widener Froud, Frank Oz, and many of the regular puppeteers and crew members. Produced and edited at a time when filmmaking documentaries were meant to inform and educate viewers, the piece flows extremely well without becoming promotional or fluffy. It's quite amazing to see the level of detail and attention paid to the evolution of the film from conceptual design to construction and tests of the puppets. Video isn't the best of quality, still appearing faded and washed out.

Two new featurettes fall under the umbrella title "Reflections of The Dark Crystal." "Light on the Path of Creation" (20:24) focuses on the film's themes and interpretations plus the real-life design influences. The second, "Shard of Illusion" (16:18), pays more attention to the production and style of the puppets, discussing how puppeteers manipulated their characters and how impressive and difficult the puppets actually were. Both parts offer new interviews with a sizable portion of the movie's crew, as well as newly-discovered test and rehearsal footage that shows the film's cast of puppets in a more raw and incomplete form. It would have been nice to get this footage on its own instead of in fragments, but the fact that it exists and surfaces at all is a treat.

A couple Mystics are being tested out in "Shard of Illusion." Jen talks to a Mystic at the funeral for the Dying Master in this deleted scene. A breathtaking Main Menu and they don't even provide the requisite looped score excerpt. Boo.

A series of Workprint Scenes are also carried over from previous releases. In early conceptions of the film, the Skeksis had their own language, requiring subtitles. However, the decision was made to drop the Skeksis language and refilm their scenes in English. Past DVD releases of this material provided subtitles as a DVD option. Unfortunately, subtitles are missing here, so unless one's already familiar with the English counterpart of the scenes, the Skeksis gibberish is indiscernible. The scenes with the original Skeksis language are: "Emperor's Deathbed" (1:55), "The New Emperor" (5:00), "Aughra & the Skeksis" (1:52), "Fountain of Youth" (3:24), and "Presenting Kira" (2:02).



Browse through more posters,
photos and memorabilia from The
Dark Crystal
, Labyrinth, and other
Jim Henson movies
The other two scenes, "Aughra & Jen" (5:32) and "Podling Village" (0:51) are notable for including the original Frank Oz vocals for Aughra. Finally, the deleted Funeral Scene (3:50) is also provided in workprint form.

A modified Character Illustrations gallery is also taken from the old DVD, only now with each image windowboxed within a 16x9 frame. There are eight stills each for the Mystics (known as the Ur-ru in novelizations and here) and the Skeksis, and gone are the original text stills which provided each character's name and a brief description. Those text stills were especially valuable as none of the Skeksis or Mystics/Ur-ru are referred to by their actual names in the film, but only within the novelizations and manga series.

One of the best features from the older DVDs was the isolated score option, showcasing composer Trevor Jones' haunting music without dialogue and effects over it. Unfortunately, it was dropped from this release, giving current owners a reason to hold on to their old discs. In addition to the isolated score, the original trailers for the film are also gone, which is a true pity as they not only showcase how the film was promoted, but the difference in advertising for one audience (American) over another (European). A few Talent Profiles are lost as well, as text screens continue to become scarcer on new DVDs.

There is also a fair amount of material from the Collector's Edition that has not been carried over, namely text and illustration features. "The Mithra Treatment" was a series of text screens on the DVD that contained Henson's original descriptions for the world of The Dark Crystal. Also included were storyboards and additional character illustrations. The really good stuff, unfortunately, wasn't even on DVD. An actual reproduction of Jim Henson's Notepad was included in the Collector's Edition, as was a numbered collectible senitype film cel and a lengthy letter by Cheryl Henson, Jim Henson's daughter. As someone who (very stupidly) passed on buying the Collector's Edition, these absences only make the 25th Anniversary Edition less exciting.

A static 16x9 menu is used on both discs, though it does have some nice Photoshopped artwork. More impressive is the packaging, as the Amaray keepcase is housed in a thick and sturdy slipcase with a lenticular front cover of the crystal. Despite the absence of the film's trailers, there are preview trailers for Labyrinth: Anniversary Edition, MirrorMask, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Edition, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and Ray Harryhausen In Color.

Mystics raise their voice in song as a long and sustained note emanates from them. The Dark Crystal floats magically within the castle, with a fiery doom in beneath the floor.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Dark Crystal is an acquired taste. It's a fantasy film that doesn't quite reach the heights of many before and after it, and is perhaps be too intense for families expecting the all-puppet cast to deliver a children's movie. Those who enjoy fantasy films and have yet to encounter this one are definitely encouraged to pick up this new 25th Anniversary DVD. Regarding the Dark Crystal or Jim Henson aficionados who may already have the already-impressive Special Edition, I still recommend this two-disc set, but as a supplement rather than an all-out replacement.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
The Jim Henson Company:
Labyrinth: Anniversary Edition
The Muppet Show: Season 2 The Muppet Show: Season 1 Dinosaurs: Seasons 1 and 2 Dinosaurs: Seasons 3 and 4
The Muppet Movie The Great Muppet Caper The Muppet Christmas Carol Muppet Treasure Island (Kermit's 50th Anniversary Editions)

1980s Fantasies:
Dragonslayer Something Wicked This Way Comes Voyagers! The Complete Series The Black Cauldron Tron The Watcher in the Woods
Return to Oz Flight of the Navigator Big: Extended Edition The Gummi Bears: Volume 1 The Secret of NIMH: Family Fun Edition

Bionicle 3: Web of Shadows Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

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Reviewed August 15, 2007.



Text copyright 2007 DVDizzy.com/UltimateDisney.com.
Images copyright 1982 Jim Henson Productions and 2007 Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.