For most people, just coming up with a cast of characters as wonderfully lovable as the Muppets – to say nothing of helping spearhead a pair of television classics as durable as The Muppet Show and Sesame Street – would be enough to justify an early and lucrative retirement. For Jim Henson, however, those feats only scratched the surface of his ambition, and by the early ’80s, the man who helped turn puppets from a sideshow trick into an art form was ready to try his hand at slightly more grown-up fare. The results were 1982′s The Dark Crystal and 1986′s Labyrinth, a pair of PG-rated fantasy films that connected the dots between The Muppet Movie and The Lord of the Rings. Neither film made much of an impression at the box office, but they’ve both acquired cult status over the years – and now they’ve both been given rather painstaking hi-def upgrades courtesy of Sony Pictures. My reviews after the jump:
The Dark Crystal, though marketed as a family film, is really a sort of weird (albeit very enjoyable) hybrid of boilerplate Tolkeinesque mythology – strange races, distant lands, a prophecy, blah blah blah – and the sort of dashing derring-do that sold millions of tickets for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, with a heaping helping of genocide, torture, and general nastiness. It’s far too intense for young kids, in other words, which had a lot to do with why audiences passed The Dark Crystal over in favor of E.T. in 1982 – and why Henson would tread a far lighter path with Labyrinth in a few years, but more on that later.
But even if it doesn’t provide heartwarming fun the whole family can enjoy, The Dark Crystal stands as Henson’s crowning technical achievement. Anyone who tried to make this movie today would most likely coat it in CGI, which is a shame; sure, a few seams show here and there, but by and large, Crystal feels like the painstaking work of human beings in front of cameras, and that adds a pleasing heft to the film that all the eye-popping special effects in the world can’t replace. Between the sweeping landscapes and incredibly detailed interiors, The Dark Crystal feels real – which is just about the best thing you can say about a movie whose two main characters have essentially one facial expression.
The Dark Crystal‘s Blu-ray transfer includes a number of special features ported over from the DVD release, including the commentary track from concept artist Brian Froud, a trio of making-of docs, deleted scenes, and a look at the language invented for the movie’s gross, vulture-like Skeksis characters – but unlike a lot of catalog titles making their way to HD, it also includes some new bonus content. Most of it’s pretty inessential – if you’ve ever dreamed of playing a trivia game while watching The Dark Crystal, now’s your chance – but you do get a pretty nifty picture-in-picture storyboard track, as well as a new introduction from screenwriter David Odell that takes a new look at that Skeksis language. The video is fairly stunning, especially considering the age of the source material; you’re going to see some grain and dirt, but you’re also going to see new levels of detail, right down to the occasional puppeteer’s string. The audio track, as you’d likely expect, isn’t the most immersive experience; it’s clear, with plenty of dynamic range, but given its age, it’s understandable that the sound tends toward the center-heavy, without a lot of activity in the rear channels.
All in all, The Dark Crystal is a movie whose commercial failure is as understandable as it is regrettable – and one well worth owning for any fan of smart, fearless fantasy. Its storyline may not be the most original, but its visuals more than make up for those shortcomings.
Labyrinth, on the other hand…well, if you’ve ever seen The House of Sand and Fog and wondered how Jennifer Connelly was able to tap so convincingly into such palpable depths of anguish and sorrow, it’s altogether likely that all she had to do was think about the fact that her performance in this soggy mess was never going to go away. Labyrinth has amassed plenty of fans since it whiffed in theaters, but to incorrectly paraphrase Rick James, nostalgia is a helluva drug; the movie wasn’t any good in 1986, and it isn’t any good now.
As with all things Henson, Labyrinth has its strengths. On paper, it actually looks kind of cool: A bratty teenage girl (Connelly) inadvertently summons the Goblin King (David Bowie) to take away her crying infant stepbrother, then has to traverse the King’s booby-trapped titular maze in order to retrieve the baby. Toss in a gaggle of cool-looking, Henson-built creations, and you should have yourself 101 minutes of fun for the whole family.
So why didn’t it turn out that way? Well, for starters, the acting is uniformly dreadful – Bowie spends the whole movie prancing around in what was hopefully a horrible wig, singing randomly timed musical numbers with foam-and-felt goblins and chewing scenery like it’s Bazooka, and Connelly turns in the type of performance you’d expect from a teenager who spends an entire film acting opposite actors in monster suits and a prancing David Bowie, which is to say she alternates between distractingly wooden and lamely over the top.
In Connelly and Bowie’s defense, the script doesn’t do either of them any favors; the plot is curiously leaden, despite the constant barrage of stuff happening onscreen, and it’s littered with silly, out-of-nowhere musical numbers that run the gamut from the simply cheesy (“Magic Dance”) to the somewhat creepy (“As the World Falls Down,” which plays during a masquerade ball in which the 39-year-old Bowie tries to seduce the 16-year-old Connelly). The movie’s final scene is a goblin balloon party in Connelly’s suburban bedroom, which is sort of perfect considering what’s come before, but it begs the question of how there was any cocaine left for the rest of us after the filmmakers were finished. As an hour and a half of ridiculous fluff, Labyrinth just about works, but as a coherent work of fantasy fiction, it’s little more than a good-looking misfire – and the fact that the last movie directed by Jim Henson featured a farting pond is just depressing.
As with The Dark Crystal, many of the bonus materials are holdovers from previous editions, including commentary with Brian Froud and three making-of featurettes – and again, Blu-ray owners are treated to exclusive content in the form of a cool, albeit not terribly interesting, picture-in-picture track from six of the creative principals, including puppeteer Kevin Clash (a.k.a. Sesame Street‘s Elmo) and Warwick Davis. The video transfer is somewhat uneven – the darker scenes don’t fare as well as the outdoor shots – but it’s all nicely rendered, and offers a richer overall experience than plenty of younger catalog reissues. The audio, meanwhile, is just about flawless, which is both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand, you get a full-bodied listening experience; on the other, that means you also get to hear a crystal clear “Magic Dance.”
Despite their flaws, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were two of the braver and more challenging family pictures to make their way through the studio system in the ’80s, and even if Labyrinth hasn’t aged very well, it’s a must-have for any hardcore Henson fan, or anyone with an incurable jones for the decade’s most pungent cinematic cheese. It’s hard to imagine either film ever looking better – and best of all, you can get them both at Amazon for less than $40 right now.
Labyrinth (Sony, 1986)
Starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, a bunch of Muppets
Director: Jim Henson
The Dark Crystal (Sony, 1982)
Starring: Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw, Percy Edwards
Director: Jim Henson and Frank Oz