‘Dark Crystal’ exhibit brings scarier Henson to puppetry center

Since 1955, Jim Henson’s warm and fuzzy Muppets have delighted children.

In 1982, he decided to use his puppets for another purpose.

In that year, he released "The Dark Crystal," a fever-dream of a movie, with invented languages, wild landscapes, strange creatures and some very scary bad guys.

The film took five years to make, and was the first live-action fantasy film to feature only puppets. It was also the first time Henson had traded lovable characters like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy for a grim story of murder, genocide, death, resurrection and creatures that suck the life essence out of the downtrodden.

Ambitious and costly, “The Dark Crystal” received mixed reviews. Some parents were ambivalent about a kids movie that might give kids nightmares.

It was saved from obscurity by a couple of things. It coincided with the advent of VHS tapes and home VCRs, so fans could play the movie over and over. It also gave Henson training in new and experimental special effects that helped him make "Labyrinth" four years later.

On Friday, Aug. 31, the Center for Puppetry Arts will open a new exhibit of artifacts from the movie called "Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal: World of Myth and Magic." It will remain in the special exhibitions gallery at least through the winter.

The exhibit has more than 50 items on display, with maquettes and prototypes of familiar characters, and actual puppets used in the film. An oversized version of Jen, the Gelfling hero of the movie, stands in one corner, while the scribe UrAc wields a pen, preparing to scribble a note.

We see a fiberglass shell that is a skull from one of the fearsome, reptilian Skeksis creatures, and a series of studies for Skeksis hands, fashioned from wood and cloth.

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Henson was inspired by the fairies and dwarves of British fantasy artist Brian Froud, who became the film’s conceptual designer. Some of Froud’s original paintings and drawings are included in the show, and they reveal the evolution of the characters.

On one wall, we can see a monitor showing scenes from “The World of ‘The Dark Crystal,’” a behind-the-scenes documentary which shows just how complicated puppetry can be.

Some of the creatures such as the Skeksis required four people to operate them simultaneously. They used relatively primitive rods and wires — Henson was still a few years away from the remote-control servo-motors that he would use in “Labyrinth.”

The movie was the directorial debut of Henson’s longtime collaborator Frank Oz, who, at the same time, was working for George Lucas, bringing life to a little green man named Yoda for “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Jill Malool, director of the World of Puppetry Museum at the center, said Henson was a natural collaborator, and when he discovered that his crew of puppeteers included a stilt-walker, it helped him visualize a creature that would become the Landstrider.

Fascinating scenes from the development of the character show a performer with stilts attached to both hands and both feet, walking on all fours, whirling, running and leaping. These puppeteers, inside the Landstrider costumes, would safely carry the Gelflings Jen and Kira across the alien Thra countryside.

“The Dark Crystal” has grown in the public’s estimation since 1982, and has been spun off into several young adult novels, a series of comic books and a fashion line. A Netflix prequel from the Henson company called “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” is in the planning.

“The Dark Crystal” was screened at the center last week for members of the puppetry center, many of whom will gather Thursday, Aug. 30, for “The Dark Crystal Ball.” Like the fabulous Labyrinth Ball held in 2016 (and 2017), the masquerade will feature revelers in elaborate outfits, and a costume contest to be judged by Henson’s son, Brian Henson, chairman of the Jim Henson Co.

The event is timed to coincide with the Dragon Con science fiction and fantasy convention, and should lure some of those cosplaying fans across town to the puppetry center.


“Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: World of Myth and Magic”

Opens Aug. 31. $12.50; children younger than age 2, free. Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. NW, Atlanta. 404-873-3391, puppet.org.

“The Dark Crystal Ball”

7 p.m. Aug. 30. $175. Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. NW, Atlanta. 404-873-3391, puppet.org.