It’s now The Bits’ turn to recognize the film and for the occasion we’ve reached out to pop culture historian Caseen Gaines, who discusses the film’s virtues, shortcomings and influence.
Caseen Gaines is the author of The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History (Insight Editions, 2017). He is a high school English teacher and co-founder of the Hackensack Theatre Company. His other books include We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy (2015, Plume), A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic (2013, ECW Press), and Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon (2011, ECW Press). He has also written for The A.V. Club, Decider, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think The Dark Crystal should be remembered on its 35th anniversary?
Caseen Gaines: Jim Henson is an undeniable genius, and he would regularly cite The Dark Crystal as the film he was most proud of. That is almost reason enough to revisit the film in its anniversary year. The film has the amazing distinction of being one of a very few films entirely starring puppets. There are no human characters in the film whatsoever. It’s an amazing achievement.
Coate: What was the objective with your new book?
Gaines: The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History really looks to shine a light on the film, which I really consider to be Jim Henson’s creative masterpiece, and all of the amazing artists like Brian Froud, Frank Oz, and Gary Kurtz, who collaborated alongside him to make the film a reality. For fans of Jim Henson who are not as familiar with the film, it’s a wonderful introduction and the book will catch you up to speed on 35 years of history. For those who are die-hards, there are exclusive images, production notes, never-before-seen stories, and fresh interviews that will add even more to your love for the movie.
Coate: Can you recall the first time you saw The Dark Crystal?
Gaines: I have to admit, I didn’t see the film all the way through until I was an adult, and when I did, I was blown away by the ambition and spectacle of it all. My real first experience with the film was seeing clips of it in a Jim Henson documentary that used to air on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel when I was younger. I thought the film looked very dark, no pun intended, and a bit scary. Even though I hadn’t seen it all the way through, the look of the characters and aesthetic of the film really stuck with me. On some level, I was always fascinated by it.
Coate: Is The Dark Crystal significant in any way?
Gaines: Besides the reasons I already mentioned, The Dark Crystal is really significant as a time capsule of a film industry that no longer exists. It took Jim Henson a very long time to get the film funded, and then made. The film was incredibly risky for a studio to take a gamble on and for him at that stage in his career. Not to mention, all the effects are practical and done without computers. The sheer magnitude of the project, which was based on an original story, seems impossible to replicate with the way the industry works today. There are tons of sequels for a reason — they’re safe bets!
Coate: Should The Dark Crystal have been more popular/successful?
Gaines: That’s hard to answer. I think it was certainly more deserving of success, but I think it fell short of expectations for a number of reasons. The film was released just a few months after E.T., which was a major international phenomenon. Perhaps more importantly, when Jim Henson’s name is attached to a project, people immediately think of The Muppets — and the characters in The Dark Crystal were far from The Muppets. It just didn’t catch on in its initial theatrical run.
Coate: In what way were Jim Henson and Frank Oz an ideal choice to direct The Dark Crystal?
Gaines: Jim Henson and Frank Oz are both creative geniuses, and The Dark Crystal is better because of their partnership, along with the collaboration of so many other talented artists like Brian Froud, Gary Kurtz, and more. As Frank Oz often says, the film is credited to both of them, but it really was Jim’s baby.
Coate: Would you like to see a sequel or additional adventures?
Gaines: Personally, I’m conflicted. I like that The Dark Crystal stands alone as a film. There’s something magical about this fully realized world that only exists in this one iteration, at least on the big screen. I am very interested in the Netflix prequel series, which is due out in 2019, I believe. I like the idea of expanding the universe in other mediums, but for some reason, I like the idea of there being only one movie.
Coate: How would you describe The Dark Crystal to someone who has never seen it?
Gaines: Everyone in the world is familiar with Jim Henson’s work, but so many have yet to see the project he’s most proud of. For that reason alone, The Dark Crystal is worth a watch.
Coate: What is the legacy of The Dark Crystal?
Gaines: The Dark Crystal reflects that rare moment in cinematic history where brilliant filmmakers were allowed to take a risk on works that they were proud of, even if it took a long time to realize and was costly to produce. Effects were done practically and computers could not be used as an easy way out. When you look at the credits of those who worked on The Dark Crystal, it’s a truly impressive group of people who assembled in London and New York for several years to create this unique film. The movie is the ultimate reminder to me about how powerful something can be when people come together around a common goal. That was true about the making of the film, which is fitting, since it really points to the central message of the movie.
Coate: Thank you, Caseen, for sharing your thoughts about The Dark Crystal on the occasion of its 35th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Associated Film, Buena Vista Home Video, Henson Associates, ITC Entertainment, Jim Henson Video, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Thorn EMI Video, Universal Pictures.
- Michael Coate