Expectations and “The Dark Crystal”

Prompted by my listening to an audiobook version of Jim Henson: A Biography by Brian Jay Jones, last Saturday Jim and I watched The Dark Crystal.  Although I hadn’t seen the film for decades, I’d seen it many times before.  I think I also read a novelization because, as we watched, my hindbrain filled in details that weren’t on the screen.  Jim, on the other hand, had heard about the movie, but never seen it.

The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal

(For clarity’s sake, I’m going to refer to my husband as “Jim” and Jim Henson either by his full name or as “Henson.”)

I was very interested in what Jim’s reaction to The Dark Crystal would be, as well as how his reaction would compare to that of the original audience for the film.  As you may or may not know, The Dark Crystal was not well received.  A great deal of this had to do with the expectations the original audience brought to the theater with them.

At the time when The Dark Crystal was released, Jim Henson was very well known.  However, mostly for his Muppets, which had already broken into the adult viewer market with The Muppet Show, the characters from which had even crossed over to the big screen.

Therefore, the audience attending the film thought they knew what “a Jim Henson production” meant: colorful, wildly over-the-top characters, humor (both broad slapstick and ironic and dry), and bouncy musical numbers.  They definitely did not expect a solemn, even dark, fantasy film.

Although the silly, over-the-top elements were definitely part of Henson (Brian Jay Jones’s biography notes that, early in his career, most of Henson’s Muppet sketches ended either with an explosion or with someone being eaten by someone else), there was a lot about Henson’s work his Muppet fans probably didn’t know.  Henson periodically longed to drop anything to do with puppets and do independent films.  Even when working with puppets, he was most fascinated with how they could be used to push expectations, not with following established trends.

Henson had to persist for years to get The Muppet Show on the air, because American television and movie executives “knew” that puppets were only for kids.  In fact, The Muppet Show’s original backers were British, and the show was filmed in England.

A side note.  Apparently SF/F fans were more receptive to the than were the general public.  My guess is that in addition to not having the same expectations, they were familiar with the tropes being used.  Many may have already been familiar with Brian Froud’s art, since his Faeries had been very well-received.  Jim Henson must have been aware that the SF/F crowd could be a core audience, because he gave a presentation on the film at a Worldcon prior to the film’s release.

So, what did Jim think of The Dark Crystal?  He liked it quite a lot.  However, he also brought very different expectations to the viewing.  In contrast to the original audience for The Dark Crystal, although Jim was definitely familiar with the traditional Muppets, he was also familiar with Henson’s later work, most especially with Labyrinth, a film that is one of my personal favorites.

(Labyrinth did even worse than The Dark Crystal on its original release, but has since found a solid following.)

Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal share several elements: a plot that relies on fantasy tropes, sets and characters indebted to the art of Brian Froud, and the use of sound as a form of language.  Labyrinth has more humor than does The Dark Crystal.  It also includes human characters as well as puppets, a formula Jim Henson had used repeatedly, whereas the closest The Dark Crystal comes to human characters are the two gelflings, Jen and Kira.

Jim also is a long-time reader of Fantasy fiction, as well as an anthropologist – possibly the perfect audience for a film that attempts to create a world and its creatures pretty much from scratch.  When I asked Jim if he had found the plot a bit too trite or formulaic, he grinned and said, “I’ve always had a weakness for that sort of story.”

Expectations again…

So, there you have it.  None of us really see or read anything fresh.  We bring our expectations with us, then let them shape our reactions.  The real question is whether, for you, “That’s not at all what I expected” can be construed as praise or criticism.

Interesting thought indeed.

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9 Responses to “Expectations and “The Dark Crystal””

  1. Peter Says:

    One reason the British audience (and British SFF fans in particular) may have been more initially receptive to The Muppet Show may be down to familiarity with the works of Gerry Anderson.

    In Leftpondia he’s probably best known for the (live action) Space: 1999, but in Rightpondia he made his bones with skiffy “Supermarionation” (ie. puppet) kid’s shows like Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds.

  2. theotherjmoore Says:

    Hmmm – I never realized the novel was a novelization of the movie screenplay. I thought the novel came first and the movie was based on the novel. I’m quite sure I read the book long before the movie was in theaters. Learned my something new for today!

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    As the proud non-owner of a TV at the time, I was all but unaware of the Muppets when I saw Dark Crystal. My take away, as I recall it now, was “why would anyone get excited about a rip-off of Terry Brooks ripping off Tolkien?”. Never did figure out why the guy who organised that theatre trip wanted to see it.

    My disappointed expectation was that the production values would at least be up to the standard set by Star Wars. What I got was very obvious puppets and quadrupeds that were clearly extras with crutches on their arms so they wouldn’t have to crawl on their hands and knees. [and not enough rehearsal time so they’d learned to move smoothly] While I’d become aware of his existence by the late ’80s, I don’t think I was aware that Henson was associated with Sesame Street until his obituary appeared.

    • janelindskold Says:

      See, expectations… And you’d probably like to see some of the “making of” footage that was on the DVD that we watched. Amazing work went into those “obvious puppets.”

  4. chadmerkley Says:

    I didn’t see the Dark Crystal until I was a teenager. I just kind of assumed that the point was to do cool things with puppets, rather than get into deep, meaningful and original storytelling.

    Artistically, I’m not a really a fan of Brian Stroud’s work. I’m not sure I can articulate why. I think it might be lack of realism? I really like the fantasy art done by John William Waterhouse, Maxfield Parrish, Trina Schart Hyman, and Kinuko Y. Craft.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Henson’s biography talked about the various iterations of the story but, you’re right, the idea of the world came first, what story to tell in it second.

      As many a visual storytelling medium has discovered to its surprise those of us who know how to tell are story are important to the process. That’s one reason more and more video game companies are hiring writers and more movies/television shows are asking the authors of the books they are adapting to be more than pro forma consultants!

  5. Katie McLaughlin Phalen Says:

    I saw The Dark Crystal in a theater, during its original release period, after reading a review, so I knew what to expect. I loved it at the time. The one time I tried to show it to the kids, I believe they may have been a little young for it (as was also true of the first times I tried to interest them in ET and Star Wars). I haven’t watched it since, but am getting the urge to do so. The kids are now grown and fully appreciate Star Wars, having insisted we name our heeler pup Rey, so it may be time for a Dark Crystal movie night.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I hope it works… I think one needs to relax into the different form, not “expect” it to mimic “reality” as we know it. After all, this is a different world… In the original version, Jim Henson wanted minimal dialogue, hoping the visuals could communicate the whole story. The DVD had some of this original material. Very strange.

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