The Dark Crystal: Jim Henson’s Cult Classic Was Almost Killed by Financiers
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Audiences in December of 1982 had some choices when they went to the movies: They could see Tootsie, a wacky gender-bending story featuring Dustin Hoffman; they could see E.T., a family-friendly cute alien movie; or they could see The Dark Crystal, a movie that … well, nobody was really sure what The Dark Crystal was.
To this day, there’s nothing else like it. Set in a strange fantasy world, the movie features no humans whatsoever—all of the characters are puppets, though far more sophisticated than anything else ever committed to film.
Inspiration for The Dark Crystal
The film’s inspiration lies in a few different sources: There’s a Leonard B. Lubin illustration of crocodiles in a palace that sparked some ideas in Jim Henson’s mind. And then there was the new-agey philosophy of the Seth Material books, a philosophical body of work that introduced energy-beings and consciousness-channelling to Americans in the 1970s and 80s. Jim Henson told his collaborators that he wanted to return to a story that felt like the Grimm Brothers stories—dark, frightening and dangerous. He wanted children to feel afraid.
It was a blizzard that propelled the story forward. Trapped at New York’s JFK airport during a storm, Henson and his daughter Cheryl outlined the main beats of the film, describing the world in which it was set. One version of the story included a journey underground, where the characters would meet creatures who mined the rocks—though that element was dropped, it would actually return a few years later in Fraggle Rock.
Henson partnered with illustrator Brian Froud in the creation of the world, giving the artists free reign to design captivating creatures. They developed a story that explored the relationship of good and evil, and for most of the project’s production, language played a major role: A new language was created for the villainous Skeksis, and the earthy Podlings were given a language with Serbo-Croatian roots.
At another point in the production, the good characters were to speak Egyptian, the evil ones Greek. The film was test-screened with this mélange of dialects, and audiences hated it. The subtitles were far too distracting, and so the soundtrack was re-dubbed into English.
The Dark Crystal necessitated a variety of technical solutions to difficult engineering challenges. The expressive Gelfling faces include small inflatable pouches to simulate muscles; other features are controlled by radio to make room for the puppeteer’s arms in the tiny characters.
Little fuzzy background creatures are, on occasion, simply wind-up toys covered in fuzz, while the giant Garthim costumes were so heavy the performers needed to be hung on racks every few minutes to recover.
The Lasting Legacy of The Dark Crystal
The film cost about $15 million to make, and it brought in about $40 million—a disappointing return. Henson’s financial advisors had pushed him to curtail the project, though he reminded them that when he had been reluctant to market Sesame Street merchandise, they themselves had pointed out that he could use that money to fund his passion projects.
And that’s what The Dark Crystal was—a passion project, not just for Jim but for the hundreds of people who worked alongside him on the film. And its legacy continued in subsequent projects in a variety of unlikely ways. In fact, much of the construction of Star Wars‘ Yoda was made possible by innovations made during The Dark Crystal.
Toby, the little baby in the movie Labyrinth, owes his creation to The Dark Crystal as well. It was on the set of this film that his parents met.