The Darkness And The Light: Jim Henson's Fantasy Movies

Having pioneered the art of puppeteering through his groundbreaking TV show ‘The Muppets’, Jim Henson would continue to hone his skills until his untimely death at the age of 53. His many allies in this endeavour included the likes of the talented Frank Oz (Miss Piggy), who helped Henson create a number of iconic characters, the most famous being the enigmatic Jedi Master, Yoda. Having achieved critical and commercial success with 'The Muppets', Henson decided to explore a darker, stranger side to his storytelling. Crafting a pair of noticeably maturer fantasy epics, 'The Dark Crystal' and 'Labyrinth', which showed an altogether more serious, melancholic side to Henson, previously unseen in his work.
A joint British and American production, ‘The Dark Crystal’ was a groundbreaking animatronic endeavour. Which involved a heavily collaborative process between directors Henson and Oz, as well as producer Gary Kurtz (‘Star Wars Episode IV') and 'Muppet Show' alumnus David Odell, who was given the arduous task of shaping the complicated mythology into a workable screenplay. That he based primarily on fantasy illustrator Brian Froud's wonderfully distinctive fairy and dwarf designs, these imaginative creations helped shape the world of Thra, along with its strange assortment of inhabitants.

The story begins “In another world, another time... in the age of wonder” in a great land once protected by the guardians of The Crystal of Truth, The UrSkeks. They were the protectors of a Crystal so powerful, it could harness the strength of three suns; The Greater Sun, The Rose Sun, and The Dying Sun. Unfortunately, a thousand years ago during the great conjunction, when the three suns aligned, The Crystal cracked, scattering across the land and transforming into The Dark Crystal. This event changed The UrSkeks into two very different races, the gentle beings known as The Mystics and the vulture-like tyrants, The Skeksis, who took control over the sacred castle, banishing The Mystics away. There they harnessed The Crystal for their own villainous endeavours, reigning over the land for nearly a thousand years, ravishing it of all its beauty, and enslaving the timid race known as The Podling.
Now, as the thousand years comes to an end, another conjunction of the suns is set to occur. Fearing a prophesied end to their power, through the restoration of The Crystal by an elf like race known as The Gelfling, they arrange for their slaughter, using the crustacean-like Garthim as their army. Escaping this massacre is a small infant known as Jen, who is raised by The Mystics in the hope of fulfilling their long believed prophesy, and restoring the land and its people to what they once were.

Shot mainly at the famous Elstree Studios in England, the process of completing 'Crystal' became a mammoth undertaking for all involved. Unlike the later 'labyrinth' or 'Muppet' Movies, 'Crystal' was solely comprised of elaborate puppets, with no humans appearing on screen. Every hand or facial movement had to be primitively done by human operators using rods and cables. For more subtle expressions like eyebrows or smiles, a radio control system was implemented. The larger puppets such as Garthim were the most arduous to capture. An operator had to be inside these heavy, dangerous costumes to complete the gruelling task, which quickly tired the occupant. This resulted in the individual having to be hung on a rack every few minutes to rest, while still inside.
Too complex for children at the time, the movie has aged better than a lot of ‘80s fantasy fare, and even outshines its later cousin, 'Labyrinth' as the stronger of the two films. Making slightly over $40 million on release, with an estimated budget of $15 million, its limited success was partly due to the massively popular 'E.T.', released in the same year. It did however win a number of minor awards, including that year's Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film, along with the grand prize at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. The film was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and a BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects. In Japan, 'The Dark Crystal' was the highest-grossing box office release for the year - out grossing even E.T. - and held onto that position until 'Titanic' was released 14 years later.
'The Dark Crystal' is a special movie, full of inventive touches and wondrous animated landscapes teeming with life and spectacle. Along with a fantastic array of supporting characters, in-particular the show stealing fluffball known as The Fizzgig, a friendly monster that will warm anyone's heart.

After the lukewarm reception to his previous fantasy endeavour, ‘The Dark Crystal’, director Jim Henson made a number of changes to his next feature. With these alterations Henson hoped to win over audience members who were left confused and frighted by the melancholic and other worldly ‘Crystal’.
Jennifer Connelly stars as Sarah, a 15-year-old girl obsessed with the eponymous fantasy novel 'Labyrinth' and its protagonist The Goblin King (David Bowie). When unwillingly left to care for her incessantly crying baby brother Toby, she jokingly wishes for The Goblin King to come and take him away to his kingdom. Sure enough, he and his band of goblins dutifully grants her wish. With the child now missing Sarah realises the terrible mistake she has made. Bravely setting forth into the dangerous world of the Labyrinth, she agrees to a dangerous pact, one that if she loses, will result in Toby and possibly herself being trapped inside forever.

The second we enter the vast Labyrinth the movie really takes off, as each new scene brings a tantalising task for Sarah to complete. There are numerous tricks and trials, from walls hiding hidden passages, to talking door knockers. Aiding her in this arduous endeavor are a band of wildly colourful puppet characters from the diminutive, cantankerous Hobble, to the loyal monster, Ludo
With help from producer George Lucas and collaborators Laura Phillips and Elaine May, Henson deliberately lightened the tone of the film from the darker script delivered by 'Monty Python' stalwart Terry Jones. This was due to the casting of David Bowie, who insisted that more humour be added to the final script. Bowie also provided a suitably camp performance and a number of lively dance numbers. The most memorable of these being the catchy, Dance Magic Dance, a wonderfully choreographed number that has Bowie and a room full of goblins leaping about to entertain the captive Toby.

Unfortunately the film was another box office failure, grossing only $12,729,917, well under its $25 million budget. Later in the growing VHS market of the late '80s, early '90s, it finally found it rightful home, along with a vast array of new fans. 'Labyrinth' would also be Henson’s final feature, before his unexpected death at the age of 53.
Although not as coherent story wise as 'Crystal', it does have way more nostalgia value for fans, myself included. Like a warm bath at the end of a hard day, 'Labyrinth' is pure comfort and joy.