Thursday, October 24, 2019

Many Answered when the Crystal Called

To probably no one’s surprise, I am a huge fan The Dark Crystal.

A combination of Muppets and near Tolkien levels of world building with languages, cultures and ecologies all included?

Yes please.

The original film is a gorgeous piece of artwork and storytelling, with deep emotion, and some Muppety humor sprinkled in.  (I always loved the Podlings, and can still do an excellent Fizzgig impression from behind a table.)

Labyrinth may have more fun component parts and does have fantastic music. However, since it’s a typical “Oz” or “Wonderland” dream state type story, while the individual characters and locations are magical and awesome, it doesn’t fit together as a comprehensive world the way Thra does.

I’ve read some of the expanded universe books and comics and while they can be good, especially the ones with Brian Froud’s input, they always feel like something is lacking. 

That’s why it took me a while to try out The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. The fear that it wouldn’t live up to the original was strong. Given the disastrous lack of understanding of the characters in the recent Muppet television series, I was concerned.

I shouldn’t have been as the Henson company gathered an enormous mass of old and new talented writers, artists and specifically - puppeteers.  Having now seen this show, I’m convinced what was lacking in the other expanded universe stories was unquestionably the puppetry.

The Froud family is back the business. Yes, Toby, the baby from Labyrinth, is Toby Froud, now building puppets like his Mom, based on his Dad’s designs.

The puppets (with some CG augmentation now) are a key reason the series recaptures the feel of the original movie.  Both the old film and new show narrative aren’t afraid to keep the pace at a level that allows taking in the epic creation of the world.  On rewatching the film, which is only about an hour and a half, I was amazed to note that when the Gelflings enter the castle at “the end” there was still fifteen minutes left.  Like the movie, the show never feels rushed, but it also never feels static. This is because there is always some element of movement in the puppets used as characters, creatures and settings. (And, consistent with the past view of Thra, sometimes the setting are creatures.) There’s time to take in the scenery, but it still always feels like only a partial glimpse of each part of the vast world.

It's actually an excellent reminder of what most people, sometimes including those who try to revive them, forget about the original Muppet Show.  Even in the craziest episodes, between the wackiness was always moments of incredible beauty and artistry, setting the wackiness into sharp relief.   

The show does reinforce why I’ve always felt replacement Muppet performers never completely work.  Simon Pegg (part of an outstandingly well used, and often well-known voice cast- Mark Hammil, yay!) has the voice of the Chamberlin down cold, and the movements being primarily controlled by excellent British puppeteer Warrick Brownlow-Pike look natural and fit the character, but he doesn’t move quite the same as he did when Frank Oz controlled him.

Side note: Watch Frank Oz’s characters in Muppet Treasure Island.  Oz does the voices, but the puppetry was done by Age of Resistance puppet captain (and former Elmo) Kevin Clash.  They match the dialog, the artistry in movement is evident, but they still look…off…somehow.

It’s telling of the quality of the narrative presented that this is a prequel, yet I’m resistant to give any spoilers away because so much awesome stuff happens.  Decades after the release of the original film they have added proportionally just as much world building, story development, puppeteering skill, beauty, drama and hints of Muppety fun to this ten episode series as the original film had.  It builds upon what was already far deeper than what appeared on screen and then goes even further.  Every episode was fantastic, and every episode left me wanting to know more about the culture, landscape, individuals, whatever. (And, consistent with the past view of Thra, sometimes the “whatevers” are individuals.)

The Muppety fun comes from the Skeksis and Uru who don’t follow their races ways. (Puppets! YAY!) but primarily , following tradition, the podlings. Specifically, much of it comes from my favorite character, the cynical, spoon wielding Podling Paladin, Hup!

It was also awesome to learn that Fizzgig is, in fact, the race name.

In summary, it’s gorgeous, it’s compelling, it varies between being dark and terrifying and light and fun.  The voice cast is stellar, and the puppeteers and set builders are at the height of their craft.  I need to see it again, you need to see it too, and they need to make more.

The question that remains is: how could a film that opened to mixed reviews, the industry thought was too weird, and Jim Henson was overall disappointed in how it was received- end up leading to this massive collection of artists and performers to produce almost ten hours of absolutely gorgeous and engaging story thirty-seven years later.

Honestly, I think it comes down to the fact that over those years, this movie specifically spoke to and inspired those specific creative and talented types who were capable of believable world building of this magnitude.


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