THE DARK CRYSTAL Directed by Jim Benson and Frank Oz Screenplay by David Odell
No Kermit. No Bert and Ernie. Sam the Nixonian eagle and Grover, with his perpetually pubescent voice, are elsewhere. This movie is serious: Jim Henson's foray into the art, dammit, of puppetry. With the help of Star Wars Producer Gary Kurtz, Faeries Artist Brian Froud, fellow Muppeteer Frank Oz and $26 million, Henson has devised a luxuriantly original fantasy world as dark as the magic crystal totem at its center. The setting is "another world, another time, in the Age of Wonder." A war between the benevolent Mystics (who look like shaggy-dog anteaters) and the evil Skeksis (pustular vultures) has obliterated all but a few of each. Under the Skeksis' whimsically sadistic reign, virtually every member of the industrious elfin race of Gelflings has been slaughtered. Only two remainJen, a young male, and the girl Kirato replace the crystal's missing shard and set the world aright again.
It takes no sorcerer's power to realize that this other land is one small leap of the imagination from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, and that Jen's adventures will frequently echo the Hobbit Frodo Baggins' in The Lord of the Rings. As narrative, the incidents in The Dark Crystal are unremarkable; as the excuse for special effects, fanciful decor and eccentric characters, they do nicely enough. Here, as in such ambitious films as Blade Runner and Diva, texture is more important than text. The slow funeral procession of Mystics across an undulating desert; the Skeksis' cruddy doge's palace, in which these hilariously sloppy eaters dine on live Podlings and scheme for ascendancy; Jen's dream sequence, briefly sparkling with hope and memoryall are set pieces that justify the expense and the viewer's attention.
The invention is impressive, but there is little indication of the Henson-Oz trademark: a sense of giddy fun. Audiences nourished on the sophisticated child's play of the Sesame Street Muppets and the music-hall camaraderie of The Muppet Show may not be ready to relinquish pleasure for awe as they enter The Dark Crystal's palatial cavern. And they may not be alone. Miss Piggy would take one look at the place and order pink satin drapes. By Richard Corliss