The cinema, especially the fantasy cinema, dazzles us because of its reality. However artificial the construction - from in-camera trickery to indoor sets to old-school cel animation (convincing us that individual drawings represent perpetual motion) - movies are charged with a sense of the miraculous. Movies are ideas and imagination made particular and set in motion. This is the magic linking cartoons to special effects films to intimate dramas to documentaries and home movies - it is the sensation of delight which confronts us in a dark theater or an empty living room, stretching from the first black-and-white train arriving in a station to the hypercharged car chases over the course of a century, from Melies' charmingly crude moonshot to the zipping spaceships of a later generation.
Few films capture the wonder of the inanimate made animate as exuberantly as Jim Henson's lush and gruesome The Dark Crystal (co-directed with Frank Oz, co-written with David Odell, and designed by Brian Froud). It extends a delight conveyed in stop-motion animation, our knowledge that what we are seeing has been meticulously prepared fused with our instinctive belief that the fluid movement is real. Called (accurately or not) the first live-action film without a single human onscreen, the puppetry of The Dark Crystal takes carefully constructed creatures and sets them not just in the illusion of movement, but in actual movement. The results are astonishing and exhilarating.
The Dark Crystal was released in the banner fantasy year of 1982 (alongside, among others, The Last Unicorn and The Secret of NIMH - reviewed two days ago - as well as E.T., which captured the mood for fantasy well enough to become the most successful film of all time). The story follows Jen, a Gelfling who must restore the missing shard to a glowing purple crystal. As he ventures forth from the Valley of the Mystics to the decadent palace of the vulturelike Skeksis, he encounters various creatures and meets Kira, with whom he mind-melds and shares memories. This is a hero's journey straight out of Joseph Campbell and its individual scenes recall not only Tolkein but the recent Star Wars saga (in some cases coincidentally; both the Ewok's village and Yoda's death in next year's Return of the Jedi are anticipated here).
The point, however, is not so much the story as how it's told: in a series of gorgeous and striking images, from the reptilian grimaces of the Skeksis as they absorb purple light rays from their coveted crystal to the weird sight of these bird-monsters (like something out of Max Ernst) grappling with huge swords; from the the fantastic dolly through a forest, in which every tree, rock, hill, and patch of moss has its own independent life (and occasionally, dangerous appetite) to the ominous barren wasteland where the Skeksis greedily suck the souls of their gentle victims. In one of the coolest and grisliest moment, an aging Skeksis emperor finally dies, and literally wastes away before our eyes, crumbling into dust.
The Dark Crystal provides a feast for the eyes because it is alive with a palpable texture, a texture missing - for me at least - from the CGI-heavy fantasies of the present. Sometimes this is due to a lazy generic approach to background or detail but even in the more inventive, ornate examples - like the Star Wars prequels, or Avatar - something is missing. I am temporarily dazzled or impressed and then the images don't stick with me. The magic is gone, that delicate balance between the wildness of the vision and the authentic feel of the execution. The second and third Lord of the Rings films, for example, seemed to my eyes weightless in their unmoored imagery (far too heavy in their solemnity and self-importance) and I suppose part of what's missing is that sense of physicality, of a world marshaled by will and skill from the raw material of reality.