Although marketed as a family film, it was notably darker than the creators' previous material, and incorporated several nods to the new age movement. The animatronics used in the film were considered groundbreaking. The primary concept artist was the fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, famous for his distinctive fairy and dwarf designs. Froud also collaborated with Henson and Oz for their next project, the 1986 film Labyrinth.
A thousand years ago on the planet Thra, a magical crystal cracked, and two new races appeared: the malevolent Skeksis, who use the power of the "Dark Crystal" to continually replenish themselves, and kind wizards called Mystics.
Jen, an elf-like Gelfling taken in by the Mystics after his clan was killed, is told by his Mystic master that he must heal the Crystal, a shard of which is held by the astronomer, Aughra. If he fails to do so before the planet's three suns align, then the Skeksis will rule forever. The Skeksis' emperor and Jen's master die simultaneously. A duel ensues between the Skeksis Chamberlain and General, both of whom desire the throne. The General wins, taking power and exiling the Chamberlain. Learning of Jen's existence, the Skeksis send large crab-like creatures called Garthim to track him.
Jen reaches Aughra and is taken to her home, which contains an enormous orrery she uses to predict the motions of the heavens. She has a box full of shards, from which Jen selects the correct one by playing music on his flute to cause it to resonate. Aughra tells Jen of the upcoming Great Conjunction, the alignment of the three suns, but he learns little of its connection to the shard. Suddenly, the Garthim appear and destroy Aughra's home, taking her prisoner as Jen flees.
Hearing the call of the Crystal, the Mystics leave their valley to travel to the Skeksis' castle. Jen meets Kira, another surviving Gelfling who can communicate with animals, and her pet Fizzgig. They discover that they have a telepathic connection, which Kira calls "dreamfasting", and share memories of being forced from their homes. They stay for a night with the Podlings, who raised Kira after the death of her parents. The Garthim raid the village, capturing most of the Podlings, but the two Gelflings and Fizzgig flee when the Chamberlain stops the Garthim from attacking them, intent on winning their trust.
Jen and Kira discover a ruined Gelfling city with ancient writing describing a prophecy: the shard Jen carries must be reinserted into the Dark Crystal to restore its integrity. They are interrupted by the Chamberlain, who claims that the Skeksis want to make peace and wants the Gelflings to return to the castle with him, but they mistrust him and refuse. Riding on Landstriders, the Gelflings arrive at the Skeksis' castle and intercept the Garthim that attacked Kira's village. While trying to free the captured Podlings, Kira, Jen, and Fizzgig descend to the bottom of the castle's dry moat and use a lower-level entrance to gain access. They are followed by the Chamberlain, who repeats his peace offer; when the Gelflings refuse again, he buries Jen in a cave-in and takes Kira to the castle. The General reinstates him to his former position, and the Skeksis' Scientist tries to drain Kira's life essence for the General to drink so that he can regain his youth. Aughra, imprisoned in the Scientist's laboratory, tells Kira to call for help from the animals held captive; they break free in response, releasing Kira and causing the Scientist to fall to his death. His Mystic counterpart simultaneously vanishes. Aughra later escapes, saving Fizzgig in the process.
The three suns begin to align as the Gelflings reach the Crystal's chamber and the Skeksis gather for the ritual that will grant them immortality. Jen leaps onto the Crystal, dropping the shard, but Kira throws it back to him before being killed by the Skeksis' high priest. Jen inserts the shard into the Crystal, unifying it as the Mystics enter the chamber and the castle's dark walls crumble away to reveal a structure of bright crystal. Before Jen's eyes, the Mystics and Skeksis merge into tall glowing beings, known as urSkeks. The leader of the urSkeks explains that they had mistakenly shattered the Crystal long ago, splitting them into two races and decimating Thra, but Jen, in fulfilling the prophecy, has restored them. The urSkeks revive Kira in gratitude for Jen's heroism, and then depart, leaving the Crystal to the Gelflings on the now-rejuvenated Thra.Jim Henson as Jen
Kathryn Mullen as Kira
Frank Oz as Aughra
Dave Goelz as Fizzgig
Frank Oz as skekSil/The Chamberlain
Dave Goelz as skekUng/The Garthim Master
Jim Henson as skekZok/The Ritual Master
Jim Henson as skekSo/The Emperor
Louise Gold as skekAyuk/The Gourmand
Brian Muehl as skekEkt/The Ornamentalist
Bob Payne as skekOk/The Scroll Keeper
Mike Quinn as skekNa/The Slave Master
Tim Rose as skekShod/The Treasurer
Steve Whitmire as skekTek/The Scientist
Brian Muehl as urSu/The Master
Brian Muehl as urZah/The Ritual Guardian
Jean Pierre Amiel as urUtt/The Weaver
Hugh Spight as urAmaj/The Cook
Robbie Barnett as urYod/The Numerologist
Swee Lim as urNol/The Hunter
Simon Williamson as urSol/The Chanter
Hus Levant as urAc/The Scribe
Toby Philpott as urTih/The Alchemist
Dave Greenaway and Richard Slaughter as urIm/The Healer
Hugh Spight, Swee Lim, and Robbie Barnett as the Landstriders
Miki Iveria, Patrick Monckton, Sue Weatherby, and Barry Dennen as the voices of the Podlings
Joseph O'Conor as the narrator and UngIm
Henson's inspiration for the visual aspects of the film came around 1975-76, after he saw an illustration by Leonard B. Lubin in a 1975 edition of Lewis Carroll’s poetry showing crocodiles living in a palace and wearing elaborate robes and jewelry. The film's conceptual roots lay in Henson's short-lived The Land of Gorch, which also took place in an alien world with no human characters. According to co-director Frank Oz, Henson's intention was to "get back to the darkness of the original Grimms' Fairy Tales", as he believed that it was unhealthy for children to never be afraid.
Henson formulated his ideas into a 25-page story he entitled The Crystal, which he wrote whilst snowed in at an airport hotel. Henson's original concept was set in a world called Mithra, a wooded land with talking mountains, walking boulders and animal-plant hybrids. The original plot involved a malevolent race called the Reptus group, which took power in a coup against the peaceful Eunaze, led by Malcolm the Wise. The last survivor of the Eunaze was Malcolm's son Brian, who was adopted by the Bada, Mithra's mystical wizards.
This draft contained elements in the final product, including the three races, the two funerals, the quest, a female secondary character, the crystal, and the reunification of the two races during the Great Conjunction. "Mithra" was later abbreviated to "Thra", due to similarities the original name had with an ancient Persian deity. The character Kira was also at that point called Dee.
Most of the philosophical undertones of the film were inspired from Jane Roberts' "Seth Material". Henson kept multiple copies of the book Seth Speaks, and insisted that Froud and screenwriter David Odell read it prior to collaborating for the film. Odell later wrote that Aughra's line "He could be anywhere then," upon being told by Jen that his Master was dead, couldn't have been written without having first read Roberts' material.
The Bada were renamed "Ooo-urrrs," which Henson would pronounce "very slowly and with a deep resonant voice." Odell simplified the spelling to urRu, though they were ultimately named Mystics in the theatrical cut. The word "Skeksis" was initially meant to be the plural, with "Skesis" being singular, though this was dropped early in the filming process. Originally, Henson wanted the Skeksis to speak their own constructed language, with the dialogue subtitled in English.
Accounts differ as to who constructed the language, and what it was based on. Gary Kurtz stated that the Skeksis language was conceived by author Alan Garner, who based it on Ancient Egyptian, while Odell stated it was he who created it, and that it was formed from Indo-European roots. This idea was dropped after test screening audiences found the captions too distracting, but the original effect can be observed in selected scenes on the various DVD releases. The language of the Podlings was based on Serbo-Croatian, with Kurtz noting that audience members fluent in Polish, Russian and other Slavic languages could understand individual words, but not whole sentences.
The film was shot at Elstree Studios, and exterior scenes were shot in the Scottish Highlands; Gordale Scar, North Yorkshire, England; and Twycross, Leicestershire, England. Once filming was completed, the film's release was delayed after Lew Grade sold ITC Entertainment to Robert Holmes à Court, who was sceptical of the film's potential, due to the bad reactions at the preview and the need to revoice the film's soundtrack. The film was afforded minimal advertisement and release until Henson bought it from Holmes à Court and funded its release with his own money.
Brian Froud was chosen as concept artist after Henson saw one of his paintings in the book Once upon a time. The characters in the film are elaborate puppets, and none are based on humans or any other specific Earth creature. Before its release, The Dark Crystal was billed as the first live-action film without any human beings on screen, and "a showcase for cutting-edge animatronics".
The hands and facial features of the groundbreaking animatronic puppets in the film were controlled with relatively primitive rods and cables, although radio control later took over many of the subtler movements. Human performers inside the puppets supplied basic movement for the larger creatures, which in some cases was dangerous or exhausting; for example, the Garthim costumes were so heavy that the performers had to be hung up on a rack every few minutes to rest while still inside the costumes. A mime from Switzerland was hired to help choreograph the movements of the puppeteers.
When conceptualizing the Skeksis, Henson had in mind the Seven Deadly Sins, though because there were 10 Skeksis, some sins had to be invented or used twice. Froud originally designed them to resemble deep sea fish, but later designed them as "part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon", with an emphasis on giving them a "penetrating stare." Each Skeksis was conceived as having a different "job" or function, thus each puppet was draped in multicolored robes meant to reflect their personalities and thought processes.
Each Skeksis suit required a main performer, whose arm would be extended over his/her head in order to operate the creature's facial movements, while the other arm operated its left hand. Another performer would operate the Skeksis' right arm. The Skeksis performers compensated for their lack of vision by having a monitor tied to their chests.
In designing the Mystics, Froud portrayed them as being more connected to the natural world than their Skeksis counterparts. Henson intended to convey the idea that they were purged of all materialistic urges, yet were incapable of acting in the real world. Froud also incorporated geometric symbolism throughout the film in order to hint at the implied unity of the two races. The Mystics were the hardest creatures to perform, as the actors had to walk on their haunches with their right arm extended forward, with the full weight of the head on it. Henson himself could hold a position in a Mystic costume for only 5–10 seconds.
The Gelflings were designed and sculpted by Wendy Midener. They were difficult to perform, as they were meant to be the most human creatures in the film, and thus their movements, particularly their gait, had to be as realistic as possible. During scenes when the Gelflings' legs were off-camera, the performers walked on their knees in order to make the character's movements more lifelike. According to Odell, the character Jen was Henson's way of projecting himself into the film. Jen was originally meant to be blue, in homage to the Hindu deity Rama, but this idea was scrapped early on.
Aughra was originally envisioned as a "busy, curious little creature" called Habeetabat, though the name was rejected by Froud, who found the name too similar to Habitat, a retailer he despised. The character was re-envisioned as a seer or prophetess, and renamed Aughra. In selecting a voice actor for Aughra, Henson was inspired by Zero Mostel's performance as a "kind of insane bird trying to overcome Tourettes syndrome" on Watership Down. Although originally voiced by Frank Oz, Henson wanted a female voice, and subsequently selected Billie Whitelaw.
The character Fizzgig was invented by Frank Oz, who wanted a character who served the same function as the Muppet poodle Foo-Foo, feeling that, like Miss Piggy, the character Kira needed an outlet for her caring, nurturing side. The character's design was meant to convey the idea of a "boyfriend-repellant", to contrast the popular idea that it is easier to form a bond with a member of the opposite sex with the assistance of a cute dog.
The Podlings were envisioned as people in complete harmony with their natural surroundings, thus Froud based their design on that of potatoes. Their village was modeled on the Henson family home.
In designing the Garthim, Froud took inspiration from the discarded carapaces of his and Henson's lobster dinners. The Garthim were first designed three years into the making of the film, and were made largely of fiberglass. Each costume weighed around 70 lbs, thus Garthim performers still in costume had to frequently be suspended on racks in order to recuperate.
The Dark Crystal was the last film in which cinematographer Oswald Morris involved himself in before retiring. He shot all the footage with a 'light flex', a unit placed in front of the camera which gave a faint colour tint to each scene in order to give the film a more fairy tale atmosphere similar to Froud's original paintings.
The film's soundtrack was composed by Trevor Jones, who became involved before shooting had started. Jones initially wanted to compose a score which reflected the settings' oddness by using acoustical instruments, electronics and building structures. This was scrapped in favor of an orchestral score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra once Gary Kurtz became involved, as it was felt that an unusual score would alienate audiences. The main theme of the film is a composite of the Skeksis' and Mystic's themes. Jones wrote the baby Landstrider theme in honor of his newly born daughter.
The Dark Crystal was released in 858 theaters in North America on December 17, 1982. In its initial weekends, it had a limited appeal with audiences for various reasons including parental concerns about its dark nature, creative connections with Henson's family-friendly Muppet franchise and because it was overshadowed by the film's competition over the Christmas of that year, including Tootsie and the already massively successful E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It made $40,577,001 in its box office run, managing to turn a profit. The film became the 16th highest-grossing film of 1982 within North America.
The film received a mixed response upon its original release, but has earned a better reception in later years, becoming a favorite with fans of Henson and fantasy. It currently holds a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Vincent Canby of The New York Times negatively reviewed the film, describing it as a "watered down J. R. R. Tolkien ... without charm as well as interest." Kevin Thomas gave it a more positive assessment in the Los Angeles Times: "Unlike many screen fantasies, The Dark Crystal casts its spell from its very first frames and proceeds so briskly that it's over before you realize it. You're left with the feeling that you have just awakened from a dream."
In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Fantasy Films list.Nominee Best Visual Effects - BAFTA (Roy Field, Brian Smithies, Ian Wingrove)
Winner Best Fantasy Film - Saturn Awards (Jim Henson, Gary Kurtz)
Nominee Best Special Effects - Saturn Awards (Roy Field, Brian Smithies)
Winner Grand Prize - Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival (Jim Henson, Frank Oz)
Nominee Best Dramatic Presentation - Hugo Awards (Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Gary Kurtz, David Odell)
The Dark Crystal was first released on VHS, Betamax, and CED by Thorn EMI Video in 1983. The company's successor HBO Video re-released it on VHS in 1988 and also released it in widescreen on LaserDisc for the first time. On July 29, 1994, Jim Henson Video (through Buena Vista Home Video) re-released the film again on VHS and on a new widescreen LaserDisc. On October 5, 1999, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment gave the film one final VHS release and also released it on DVD for the first time and it has had multiple re-releases since including a Collector's Edition on November 25, 2003, and a 25th Anniversary Edition on August 14, 2007. It was also released on UMD Universal Media Disc for Playstation Portable (PSP) on July 26, 2005. It was released on Blu-ray on September 29, 2009.
During the development phase of The Dark Crystal, director Jim Henson and writer David Odell discussed ideas for a possible sequel. Almost 25 years later, Odell and his wife Annette Duffy pieced together what Odell could recall from these discussions to draft a script for The Power of the Dark Crystal. Genndy Tartakovsky was initially hired in January 2006 to direct and produce the film through The Orphanage animation studios in California.
However, faced with considerable delays, the Jim Henson Company announced a number of significant changes in a May 2010 press release: It was going to partner with Australia-based Omnilab Media to produce the sequel, screenwriter Craig Pearce had reworked Odell and Duffy's script, and directing team Michael and Peter Spierig were replacing Tartakovsky. In addition, the film would be released in stereoscopic 3D.
During a panel held at the Museum of the Moving Image on September 18, 2011 to commemorate the legacy of Jim Henson, his daughter Cheryl revealed that the project was yet again on hiatus. More recently, it was reported in February 2012 that Omnilab Media and the Spierig brothers had parted ways with the Henson Company due to budgetary concerns; production on the film has been suspended indefinitely.
On July 1, 2013, an announcement was made by The Jim Henson Company, in association with Grosset and Dunlap (a publishing division of Penguin Group USA) that they would be hosting a Dark Crystal Author Quest Contest to write a new Dark Crystal novel, as a prequel to the original film. It would be set in the Dark Crystal world during a 'Gelfling Gathering.' The winning author was J.M. (Joseph) Lee of Minneapolis, Minn. whose story, "The Ring of Dreams," was selected from almost 500 contest submissions. He was awarded a publishing contract with Penguin worth $10,000 (US). In May 2014, Lisa Henson confirmed that the film was still in development, but it is not yet in pre-production.
Ultimately, plans for a feature film were scrapped, and the unproduced screenplay will be adapted into a twelve-issue comic book series The Power of the Dark Crystal from Archaia Comics and BOOM! Studios, to be released in 2017.
In May 2017, it was announced that The Jim Henson Company in association with Netflix would produce a prequel series titled The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Shooting is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2017 with Louis Leterrier as director. The prequel was written by Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach. There will be ten episodes and the series will explore the world created for the original movie.A book entitled The World of The Dark Crystal, written by J. J. Llewellyn and illustrated by Brian Froud, was released at the same time as the film. The book expands greatly on the world of "Thra", detailing its conditions and history, as well as providing some additional story background.
A tie-in novelization of the film was written by A.C.H. Smith. Henson took a keen interest in the novelization, as he considered it a legitimate part of the film's world rather than just an advertisement. He originally asked Alan Garner to write it, but he declined on account of prior engagements. Henson and Smith met several times over meals to discuss the progress of the manuscript. According to Smith, the only major disagreement they had arose over his dislike of the Podlings, which he considered "boring". He included a scene in which a Garthim carrying a sackful of Podlings fell down a cliff and crushed them. Henson considered this scene to be an element of "gratuitous cruelty" that did not fit well into the scope of the story. In order to assist Smith in his visualising the world of The Dark Crystal, Henson invited him to visit Elstree Studios during the filming of the movie. In June 2014, Archaia Entertainment reprinted the novelization, though included extras such as some of Brian Froud's illustrations, and Jim Henson's notes.
An illustrated children's storybook version, The Tale of the Dark Crystal, written by Donna Bass and illustrated by Bruce McNally.
A board game called "The Dark Crystal Game" was also released in 1982 (see List of Milton Bradley Company products).
A book-and-cassette adaptation was released in 1983 by Disneyland Records as part of its Read-Along Adventures series.
In 1983, a video game based on the movie was released for the Apple II and Atari 8-bit in the format of a text adventure.
Marvel Comics published a comic book adaptation of the film by writer David Anthony Kraft and artists Bret Blevins, Vince Colletta, Rick Bryant, and Richard Howell in Marvel Super Special #24.
Vogue commissioned six of the film's costume designers to fashion clothes based on the characters of the film.
Music duo The Crystal Method used samples from the film in the song "Trip Like I Do", released on their 1997 album Vegas.
Legends of the Dark Crystal, an original English-language manga written by Barbara Kesel with art by Heidi Arnhold, Jessica Feinberg, and Max Kim, was published by TokyoPop. Its story is set hundreds of years before the events of The Dark Crystal, after the Great Conjunction which saw the splitting of the UrSkeks into the Mystics and the Skeksis, but before the Great Extermination of the Gelflings. The first volume of the series came out November 2007, followed some time later by the second in August 2010. A third installment had been originally planned but was cancelled and subsequently merged into the second volume.
Another comic book prequel, The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths, is currently being published by Archaia Entertainment as a series of three graphic novels. The Henson Company and Archaia began collaborating on this project in late 2009. A brief preview was made available on Free Comic Book Day in May 2011, and the first installment was released January 2012, shortly thereafter spending two weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list of hardcover graphic books. In February 2013, the second installment was officially released. The third and final part was released in October 2015.
In February 2011, Sandstorm Productions – a firm that partnered with various design studios to facilitate the development and distribution of board games and collectible card games – revealed that it had acquired the license to produce games based on various Henson properties, including The Dark Crystal. Before any definitive plans were made, however, Sandstorm went out of business in June 2012.
Archaia announced plans for a role-playing game based on The Dark Crystal at the August 2011 Gen Con gaming convention, intending to publish it later the following year. Like its Origins Award-winning Mouse Guard game, The Dark Crystal will be designed by Luke Crane and utilize mechanics similar to that of The Burning Wheel. As of September 2012, it remains in active development, with more details forthcoming in 2013.
In August 2013, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - a company that produces body and household blends with a dark, romantic Gothic tone - debuted the first of their licensed The Dark Crystal perfumes. The debut included four Skeksis blends: skekUng the Garthim-Master, skekNa the Slave-Master, skekTek the Scientist and skekZok the Ritual-Master.
In the Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge episode "Return of the Skeksis," the competing creature designers had to work in teams of three to build a Skeksis that has been banished to different parts of Thra and has been called back to the Skeksis Castle.
The song Skeksis on Alien by Canadian band Strapping Young Lad is named after the film's antagonists; the song itself contains an interpolation of the film's theme melody. Singer-songwriter Devin Townsend would later base Ziltoid the Omniscient on the characters from the film.
Two prequel novels by J. M. Lee have been published -- Shadows of the Dark Crystal (June 2016), and Song of the Dark Crystal (July 2017)
Dark Crystal Tales by Cory Godbey, a children's book of short stories, was released August 2017.