Since I’ve committed myself to watching The NeverEnding Story 52 times this year, I felt it was my duty to view similar movies. Specifically, children’s fantasy movies from the 1980s. After some research, I came up with a small, but serviceable list: The Dark Crystal (1982), Legend (1985), Labyrinth (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), and Willow (1988). As I view each of these films, I will be using The NeverEnding Story as my measuring stick. I will be looking at the hero, the sidekicks, the quests and tests, the villains (or nightmare fuel), puppetry, visual effects, and overall plot. So, here we go… Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal.
In The Dark Crystal, Jen is a Gelfling who must fulfill a prophecy to save his world. The last of his race, he is raised by the wise and peaceful Mystics. Honestly, Jen is a boring hero. I have no interest in his character. His special abilities are playing the flute and reading. Jen could be an interesting character, but he’s never developed. The audience is smash-cut to him being sent out on a quest without ever learning much about him. As the story progresses, we meet other, slightly more interesting characters. But, alas, they do not contribute to Jen’s character development. There is no real trial by fire for Jen, so the audience never has a chance to identify with him.
Now let’s compare Jen to Atreyu. We know very little about Atreyu when he arrives at the Ivory Tower, except that he’s a great warrior. When he arrives and everyone is flummoxed to see a little boy, the audience immediately becomes attached. He’s an underdog and we’re already rooting for him. Atreyu also encounters beings and tests that change him. He’s a little boy up against impossible odds. When he arrives at the Ivory Tower to tell the Childlike Empress that he’s failed, we feel his pain. When he learns that he was put through hell on purpose, he is rightly pissed and we’re pissed with him. Atreyu has a greater range of emotions and Jen just doesn’t.
In Jen’s travels, he stumbles upon Kira (another Gelfling) and her monster-like, rolly-polly… dog-thing, Fizzgig. Kira is pretty badass. She was raised by the Podlings, so instead of math and reading, she learned about the forest. Kira communicates with animals, saving Jen and herself, and also landing them some sweet transport to the evil castle. She can even fly. She comes in handy often and would make a far better hero than Jen. I’m sure some fans of The Dark Crystal would even argue that she’s the actual hero and Jen is the sidekick. Fizzgig is there to be adorable and randomly helpful.
Atreyu begins his quest with his trusty friend and steed, Artax. Artax, though given short screen time, makes quite an impact on the viewer. I’ve discussed Artax and his role in detail in a previous post. Artax is replaced with Falkor, who I found fun as a child, but a bit creepy as an adult. Falkor saves Atreyu and flies the hero to the Southern Oracle. He also imparts some old-timey wisdom here and there. As beloved as Falkor is, he’s just a flying Artax. A feat of puppetry, for sure, and the fastest way to get around Fantasia, but the earth maiden Kira might be a bit more useful on a quest.
THE QUEST AND TESTS
Usually, when someone is sent on a quest, they have some idea what they’re looking for or what they’re supposed to do. Not Jen. A dying Mystic tells Jen to find Aughra. Jen finds Aughra, who gives him a cryptic explanation that the world is coming to an end. Jen picks a crystal piece by playing his flute, but is cast back into the wilderness as he escapes the goons sent by the evil Skeksis. Not until much later, and after a series of random events, does Jen find out that he has to restore the Dark Crystal with his crystal shard. It takes 53 minutes into the movie for Jen to finally realize that he’s part of a prophecy. The Mystics, who knew about it, never told him! Jen never appears to be in real peril, but his friends are kidnapped, nearly killed, and have their essences drained. Jen runs a lot, but never puts up any kind of a fight. He has Kira and Fizzgig to do that for him. Since he’s never really tested, he remains a lame protagonist that completes a goal.
Atreyu gets put through the meat grinder. But at least he knows his goal: find a cure for the Childlike Empress. He’s told from the beginning that he can’t bring his weapons and must go alone. He loses Artax in the Swamps of Sadness, nearly drowns, almost gets killed by magic laser eyes, comes close to drowning (again), faces the evil G’mork, fails to save his world, and theoretically dies when Fantasia is destroyed. These are all tests designed to get the audience (and Bastian) to sympathize with Atreyu and cheer him on. The effects that the Southern Oracle and the Swamps of Sadness have on Atreyu are palpable. There are reasons behind the events and beings he encounters, whereas Jen’s journey seems hodge-podge and random.
The Skeksis are damned frightening. Jim Henson’s people dug deep to create these things. The Skeksis look like huge buzzards mixed with beef jerky. They are nasty. Plus they’re evil. Politically. The Emperor dies (he disintegrates Last Crusade-style) and there is immediate conniving for who will be the next emperor. Through a test involving hitting a sword against a rock, the Chamberlain loses and is exiled. Literally stripped of rank, he wanders around, trying to find some way to garner favor and return to the hierarchy. There’s also a scene where the Skeksis are eating. It’s there just to be gross. While the Skeksis are foul creatures, they are evil for evil’s sake. They bicker more than they get the job done. They know that a Gelfling exists, but they send the beetle-like Garthim to do their work instead. A classic blunder for any evil villain. They also in-fight so much that their race probably would be too concerned with themselves to care about causing despair elsewhere.
Fantasia is being destroyed by the Nothing. The Nothing is scary in the metaphorical sense. It represents the death of dreams and imagination. If the Nothing succeeds, then our world will become filled with slack-jawed, drooling humans ready to be controlled. However, as a child, G’mork, the conspirator of the Nothing, was the physically scary villain. A giant wolf, hidden in darkness, steadily tracks down Atreyu with the intent to kill him. I always hid my eyes during the first shot of G’mork. His green eyes glow in a cave as the lightning from the approaching storm gives us only brief glimpses of the terror sent to destroy Atreyu. G’mork does get his punishment (death), but the Nothing succeeds in destroying Fantasia. Luckily, Bastian saves the day, but it’s a close one.
There are few people in the world who would ever say Jim Henson wasn’t an amazing creator. His creatures are iconic. That being said, The Dark Crystal is not his best work. The reason is because the puppetry rarely lends itself to the story. Watching Jen play his flute and articulate his fingers is an amazing feat of puppetry, but I don’t care. We never get to see Jen’s hands doing anything else interesting. He plays to find the lost crystal shard, but it seems a lame plot device made to fit the innovation. There’s also a scene where Jen is walking through a mysterious grove. Lots of little things are going on around him. There are plants popping and the land moving in odd ways. It’s very detailed and lovely, but serves no purpose other than being very detailed and lovely. Kira and Jen’s mouths are odd, too. I feel like Jim Henson’s people could have found some better solution than limited dialogue and a slew of voice-overs to compensate. The Dark Crystal seems more like a vehicle for interesting, experimental puppetry than for a compelling story.
The NeverEnding Story suffers a bit, too, in terms of puppetry. Falkor is an amazing puppet, no doubt, but I wonder how experienced the puppeteers were who took on the project. Mouth articulation is all kinds of messed up in this film. Falkor, the Rockbiter, and G’mork become distracting when their mouths don’t match the dialogue. Maybe some of it has to do with the crew being German? Whatever the reason, The NeverEnding Story seemed fantastic as a kid, but is not that awesome in the harsh reality of adulthood. I will say, though, that the racing snail and the stupid bat look great, and since they don’t talk, they get a pass.
The Dark Crystal looks like it’s from 1982. In a film produced by Jim Henson, I expected visual and special effects to be up to par with the puppetry. Not so. Any green screen shots are terrible and obvious. The matte paintings and models are not all that great, either. The weird light beams from the crystal are okay, but feel a bit hokey. And the final scene, where the Mystics and the Skeksis are reintegrated, is so messy and embarrassing to watch. I was just plain disappointed. I wanted to be amazed, but I think more money and time was spent on the puppets and sets than any supplemental effects.
If Falkor’s first appearance could just be erased or fixed, then The NeverEnding Story would be damn near perfect. Okay, not really. I just want it to be. The green screen work needs a little help, but it’s not nearly as bad as The Dark Crystal. The clouds are awesome. Good job, cloud effects unit. The mattes are also fantastic. For a film from the ’80s, The NeverEnding Story looks slick and coherent. And here’s a bit of trivia: Chris Evans (not Captain America). This man was the matte painter for The NeverEnding Story and he was the scenic matte painter for The Dark Crystal. He’s done a ton of other films including The Truman Show and Jurassic Park. I would blame him for being inexperienced during The Dark Crystal, but he also was a matte painter for E.T. beforehand. What happened? The NeverEnding Story looks lovely while The Dark Crystal looks rushed.
I watched The Dark Crystal with a group of gentlemen including Cinemanauts Bill and John. Nobody was impressed. Everyone was bored and I had to apologize for having to watch this movie in the name of science. The film opens up with a tedious exposition that immediately makes me lose interest. It’s not a brief run-down and it feels about as exciting as a recited lineage of biblical characters. Then we have to endure characters who are not interesting. I think that even if the main characters had been played by actors, I still wouldn’t find them compelling. The pacing is brutal. Jen is sent on a quest before we really get to know about him. He quest is aimless and without goal until near the end of the film. Meanwhile, there’s an interesting subplot between the Skeksis and the Mystics. Apparently the two races are cosmically linked so that when one member dies, another member in the opposite race also dies. That’s neat, I guess. It held my interest longer than the scene where the Skeksis eat. There may be a message in the film about good and evil, but I’m not really sure what it is. The Dark Crystal suffers from a poorly paced plot and too many characters who distract from a boring protagonist.
The NeverEnding Story has fantastic pacing. There’s a balance achieved by jumping between Fantasia and the ordinary world. The audience encounters characters who have a bearing on the plot while also being interesting. The Rockbiter, who seems like a small character, appears again near the climax. His role is to remind Atreyu and the audience that the Nothing is brutal and the end is near. Atreyu’s journey is vigorous. He’s always going somewhere with an objective. Even Bastian, our ordinary hero, has depth created in subtle ways. We join in his adventures as much as we do in Atreyu’s. The final encounter between Atreyu and G’mork seems a bit forced. Their conversation feels like an attempt to tie up any loose ends with exposition. I feel happy watching this movie, rather than bogged down. The NeverEnding Story knows how to engage the audience’s attention while creating a fascinating array of characters who each have depth.
After looking at The Dark Crystal compared to The NeverEnding Story, I have to say that The NeverEnding Story is the better film. The NeverEnding Story wins with a better hero, quests and tests, visual effects, and plot. The sidekicks and villains could go either way. The Dark Crystal certainly excels in puppetry. The NeverEnding Story is not perfect, but the imperfections seem small compared to The Dark Crystal. Perhaps my expectations were too high for The Dark Crystal. I expected a fantasy film with character’s as engaging as Labyrinth‘s. The film stands more as a testament to Jim Henson’s puppetry skills than his storytelling. Both films are a darker form of the fantasy genre, but The NeverEnding story manages to still be uplifting amid the terror. The Dark Crystal is nothing special. You could watch it, but don’t expect to be entertained.
“Just make it stop!”