If you haven’t seen the original film, here’s the basic synopsis: when the Dark Crystal cracked 1,000 years ago, two races — the Skeksis and the Mystics — appeared in the magical world of Thra. Ever since, the Skeksis have used the Crystal to continually replenish themselves and rule over the now-decimated planet. To avoid a prophecy that foretells their doom (“When single shines the triple sun, what was sundered and undone shall be whole. The two made one by Gelfling hand or else by none”), they murder the entire Gelfling race… except for two children, Jen and Kira, who escape and are raised by the Mystics and the Podlings, respectively.
Shortly before his death, Jen’s master tells him that he must find the astronomer Aughra, retrieve the broken piece of the Dark Crystal from her, and heal it. Because neither of them know about Kira, Jen is told he’s the only one who can do this deed. So he goes on a hero’s journey that once again changes Thra irrevocably — this time, for the better.
From here on out, expect spoilers for the movie; if you don’t want to know what happens and you haven’t seen it, stop reading!
I can’t remember the last time I watched The Dark Crystal, but I know I must have been very young. As a kid, the Skeksis — vulture-like creatures with disgusting habits and thin, reedy voices — absolutely terrified me. The Mystics, on the other hand, seemed like homely grandparents I wanted to hug. And Kira, who could talk to animals and had a weird, growly companion named Fizzgig, seemed so incredibly cool. I don’t recall how I felt about Aughra or Jen, or if the actual plot of the film affected me at all.
However, upon rewatching as an adult, many of my feelings have not changed. In 1982, Henson’s use of animatronic puppets was revolutionary; although it’s been 37 years, the film still feels magical and unique, a masterpiece in and of itself. The Skeksis are still terrifying, still disgusting, still ugly. The mystics still seem like sweet, aging friends I’d like to sit down with for a cup of tea. And Kira is still the coolest… although, I must admit, watching this movie now left me with a deep fondness for Aughra that rivals my love of Ursula and Madam Mim.
Earlier this year, my partner took me to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, which has an ongoing Jim Henson exhibition. In addition to Muppets, Sesame Street characters, and film reels, the exhibition also features concept drawings for The Dark Crystal and even a full Skeksis puppet: SkekZok, the Ritual Master.
In person, SkekZok is my height (5’7″) and more detailed than I ever could have realized. Quite frankly, seeing the actual size of it gave me chills, even knowing — from that brief featurette shown at NYCC — that the puppets used in The Dark Crystal are quite large. Although there is no Gelfling puppet on display, it’s easy to imagine looking up at such a figure, as a small creature, and feeling utter terror. It’s harder to imagine standing up to or fighting the Skeksis, as Jen and Kira do, but perhaps that’s the point.
The Dark Crystal is as its name suggests: dark. However, there’s a steady thread of hope that weaves its way through the story, led primarily by the protagonist, Jen. He may be an orphan with little to no knowledge of his mission, but he keeps trying, even when it seems that everything has gone up in flames — literally. Because this movie was marketed as a family film, it never fully leans into its darkest elements. The Podlings, who are made into mindless slaves, are freed once the Crystal is healed. Kira, who is stabbed for her efforts to help Jen, is brought back from the dead; Fizzgig also miraculously survives a terrible fall.
That said, there’s nothing hokey about the ending of The Dark Crystal. It feels earned, in a way that happy endings sometimes don’t. Whatever bleakness exists to inform the plot and the character arcs isn’t eliminated, but balanced against triumph. It’s a beautifully executed story in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings, and it’s a movie I’ve loved for years, even though it’s been so long since I last saw it. The Dark Crystal sticks with you, in both big and small ways.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance hits Netflix on August 30. The Dark Crystal (1982) is now streaming.