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Monday, February 18, 2013

Retro Nostalgia: The Dark Crystal (1982) and the Necessity of a Remake

When I first saw The Dark Crystal over a decade ago, I recall feeling amazed by the story.  As kids, I think we have a tendency to open ourselves to imaginative possibilities that adults have closed themselves off to (possibly because adults have "seen it all").  Watching The Dark Crystal as a kid was like jumping headfirst into my own imagination.*  Re-watching the film brought back some of those mostly-nostalgic memories, in particular because the world of The Dark Crystal is a fully realized one.  There are enormous sets, moving plants and critters, unique characters, and astonishing puppetry.  It's hard not to marvel at how much effort went into making this film.

The problem?  Time has not been kind to Jim Henson's 1982 classic.  Unlike The Labyrinth, which survives its ancient green screen and sometimes stiff puppetry largely because it is a quirky fantasy flick for kids, The Dark Crystal simply doesn't hold up as well.  The stiff puppetry, a product of the time more than anything else, reminds us that we're looking at, well, puppets; to suspend disbelief, we have to trick our minds in ways we generally wouldn't have to.  This is true of
almost all of the characters, with exception to Fizzgig, whose rambunctious behavior offers a few purely comical moments.**  The rest?  Stiff.  Their mouths barely move and their facial expressions are limited.  That said, you'll find nuance in the bodily movements of the characters; the puppet masters -- ha! -- did their best to make up for the lackluster facial performances by turning those bodies into canvases all on their own.  I'll never have that kind of skill, which is why I admire it so.
I say this not because I think The Dark Crystal is a bad movie.  To say that, I would have to dislike much about The Labyrinth, even if I acknowledge that the latter receives some leeway due to tone.  For its time, The Dark Crystal was ambitious, to say the least.  It took all the glamour of the Jim Henson puppeteer studios and merged it with the mythical narratives of epic fantasy.  Critics were right to liken it to a Muppet version of a Tolkien story (The Hobbit, perhaps).  It has the right kind of characters, world, and elements to facilitate an epic fantasy narrative, right down even to the somewhat cliche "chosen one" plot line.  Most of these things work in its favor.  The film made $30mil in profit, though its sequel, Power of the Dark Crystal, has been in development limbo since the 80s, and it remains one of the highest grossing Henson films ever made.

I bring all this up because I think that it's time someone remade The Dark Crystal.  Hear me out, if you will.

I'm not a fan of remakes.  In fact, I think most remakes shouldn't exist, though the almighty dollar will keep them coming for decades to come.  But The Dark Crystal is the type of film that would benefit from modern technology, set design, budgets, and so on, in part because its original format, though beautiful for its time, has not aged particularly well (and don't get me started on the annoying voice over that explains everything that has happened in the world up to the start of the narrative proper).  Contemporary puppetry, when properly funded, can produce more advanced characters and designs with developed facial features and facial mobility.  Those characters who seem somewhat stiff will come to life in a way they never have before.  The result?  Characters we all can easily connect to.  We'll still know they're puppets, but we'll suspend our disbelief more readily if the characters look, move, and act like real people.  Just look at what they did for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (skip to 7:05):
And that's not even the best they could have done.  With advances in animatronic technologies and so on and so forth, you could create characters that practically cry on their own.  Throw in a little CG to help blend the sets and character together -- and no more than "a little" -- and you've got a mixture for what might be the most ambitious remake ever conceived.

Of course, if Hollywood tried to remake The Dark Crystal, they'd probably CG everything and leave out the puppetry -- assuming the Henson company would let them.  I think this would be a grave mistake, but it's not like Hollywood is afraid to send out stinkers and pretty everything up with lens flares and explosions these days.  My only hope is that remaking The Dark Crystal will do honor to the original and add new life to a world that deserves the best adaptation possible.  There's so much to love about The Dark Crystal, from its classic heroic quest to its complete absence of human characters*** to its settings, scenery, and depth.  Who wouldn't want to see it re-imagined once more?

This is where everyone chimes in with their thoughts.  Do you think a remake of The Dark Crystal would be a good idea?
This is the most adorable character in the entire movie.  Fizzgig!


*No wonder I couldn't get enough of Fraggle Rock as a kid...

**He's sort of like a dog thing.  It's hard to explain.

***If not for the fact that I desperately want to see this film remade, I might have talked about the curious absence of human characters in The Dark Crystal.  Perhaps for another time...

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