Another world, another time, in the age of wonders
Inspired by Athena's Owl post about Labyrinth, I figured I would write about my own favorite Henson movie, The Dark Crystal.
Why is the Dark Crystal so good? I mean, besides Brian Froud’s vivid imagination and Jim Henson’s talent in livening it up through marvelous puppets. Well, it is good because of the story-telling. Now, you may wonder and even be puzzled, as the Dark Crystal story is rather cliché, and seems to be copy-pasted from many other works: bad guys run the place, they are about to achieve absolute power, and a brave hero saves the day with the crucial assistance of his love affair and adorable creatures. This does not sound like a really enticing story.
To understand why The Dark Crystal is good from a story-telling point of view, it suffices to listen to the narrated introduction, in which the bare bones of the world are laid while an ominous music sets the atmosphere: “Another world, another time, in the age of wonders.” It tells you that two new races have appeared, “the cruel Skeksis, the gentle Mystics”. Clear-cut and simple bad guys-good guys dichotomy.
It should be boring, yet if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that a structure is emerging. And that’s the crux of it. The introduction does not try to elicit a complex and realistic world with a deep and full-fledged backstory. It offers a symbolic, almost geometric arrangement of motifs. In its simplicity lies its purity. You don’t need to know any more about Skeksis and Mystics: one sentence is all you need to sit back and follow what unfolds. The careful picking of words, the perfect balance of the syntax, the sharp and euphonic contrast make all stakes crystal clear from the very beginning.
The rest of the narrative intro continues to follow this simple and delicate structure, but it also builds on it. The Skeksis on the one hand, the Mystics on the other hand. Two ways to apprehend the world, as much irreconcilable as they are incomplete. The delicate symmetry is maintained and strengthened, elegantly elaborated.
The greatness of the Dark Crystal is that it takes itself very seriously, even though it offers a basic story. It takes a very simple scheme and elevates it with a hieratic tone and slow-paced, carefully crafted sequences. And by doing so, being very intent at setting this almost cosmic story, it manages a feat few works can pretend to have accomplished: it lets you touch the matter of myths.
Now, I know, this is nothing new. We have heard ad nauseam that Star Wars is great because Lucas read Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, according to which all myths follow the same patterns, and therefore following them is a sure means to infuse your story with mythical substance. As a result, we saw many movies relying on deeply unoriginal storylines and justifying themselves by saying that following the traditional tale structure is what you can do best in the matter of story-telling. The success of the Dark Crystal seems to confirm that.
Except it does the opposite. The story-telling of the Dark Crystal is strong because it goes at great lengths to tell you an old tale, to make it new again. The Dark Crystal has good story-telling not because it follows whatever traditional narrative patterns but because it meticulously weaves a structure to support this story-telling, because it wants to tell you something you know, but to recover its meaning, it must be told in magnificent style. These patterns are like old magic glyphs, devoid of life, nothing more than mere ornaments if you do not find the way to re-activate their full power. The Dark Crystal is almost a ritual – a ritual to make the patterns of myth alive again. It’s not about using these patterns to bring strength to your story, but really the reverse.
Now you might understand a bit better why I consider The Dark Crystal to be a major Fantasy movie, and what I am looking for in stories. This shall also serve as an announcement, as a good deal of my new Bat section on Solitaire Times will be devoted to Fantasy comic books. These future posts will be inspired by reviews I have already written on BGG, but I hope most of them will be repurposed and polished further to best share my views about what I love the most: a well-told tale.