Jim Henson is largely associated with cutesy, quirky puppet friends, like those seen on Sesame Street and The Muppets. But the puppetry aficionado wasn’t all fluff and hugs; his body of work takes an interesting turn in The Dark Crystal, where a young hero works to save the eerie world of Thra from the nightmarish Skeskis. With the prequel TV series hitting Netflix, a whole new generation has been introduced to Henson’s weird, fantasy brainchild. So whether you’re a returning fan or a first-timer, read on, adventurer, and gather ye the true lore of The Dark Crystal.
1. The Wizardry of Oz
Beloved puppet expert Frank Oz was one of the directors of The Dark Crystal. You may recognize him (or his hand gestures, anyway) from beloved friends like Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Cookie Monster, to name a few.
2. The Puppetmaster
Mr. Oz was, of course, intrinsic to the development of The Dark Crystal, but the film was mainly the brain-child of none other than James Maury Henson–better known as Jim Henson! Yes, the creator of The Muppets and director of Labyrinth also brought The Dark Crystal into the world. Let’s be real; if there are quirky, charming puppets involved, Henson was probably behind it.
3. Henson in Wonderland
Although a visual genius himself, Henson’s aesthetic for The Dark Crystal was inspired by an illustrated edition of Lewis Carroll’s poetry. The art was done by illustrator Leonard B. Lubin, and Henson’s muse was an image of fancy crocodiles in decadent robes and jewelry.
4. Live From Gorch, It’s Saturday Night!
Henson first dabbled in fantastical puppet-worlds on Saturday Night Live. Although it was short-lived, Henson created the short-lived “Land of Gorch” sketches, which appeared in SNL’s first season.
5. Adult Toys
While whimsical in appearance, the creatures of The Land of Gorch were a, erm, rough bunch. Sure, they were royalty, but that didn’t stop them from debasing themselves in every way imaginable. Some of their favorite topics of discussion included drug abuse, heavy drinking, and the things puppets get up to in the boudoir.
6. Pulling the Strings
Henson wasn’t always a puppet master, but he was an opportunist. In his senior year of high school, he learned how to make an operate puppets so he could land a gig on a Saturday morning program with a cast of young puppeteers.
7. I Thought It Was Just a Cool Elective
Although Henson’s major at the University of Maryland was graphic design, puppetry had a lasting place in his heart. As a freshman, he took a puppetry course where he met Jane Nebel, who was a senior at the time. It was a slow burn, but this meet-cute budded into a romance, marriage, and family with five children.
8. The Many Scents of Thra
Want to smell like a Skeksis? You can with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s perfume line! Each scent is named after a different Skesis, and they sell for roughly $28 each.
9. Return to the Beginning
In 2013, The Jim Henson Company expanded the Dark Crystal literary universe even further with a writing contest. There were almost 500 submissions to the Dark Crystal Author Quest, and the winner was the story “The Ring of Dreams,” written by J.M. Lee from Minneapolis.
10. What’s in a Name?
The general concept remained the same from story to film, but the names are almost unrecognizable. In the original story, the evil Reptus threatened the world of Mithra and its peaceable Eunaze people, leaving Brian, son of Malcolm the Wise, to save them. Can you substitute the names for what they became in the movie?
11. Preliminary Parallels
While names changed, events didn’t. Both the story and the film contain two funerals, an epic quest, a female sidekick, and a super magical Crystal with a capital C.
12. Keep Religion Out of It
As mentioned above, the world of The Dark Crystal was originally called Mithra. However, to avoid controversy, the first syllable had to be dropped, since the name was very similar to that of an ancient Persian god. And, lo, the world was henceforth simply called…Thra.
13. Messages From the Beyond
There once was a lady named Jane Roberts who had the completely normal and not-terrifying pastime of getting possessed by a spirit entity named Seth, who would use her body to dictate new age philosophy to Jane’s husband. These dictations were published as the “Seth Material,” and apparently inspired the philosophical undertones of The Dark Crystal.
14. The New Klingon
The Dark Crystal’s villainous Skeksis were supposed to have their own language, and a lot of time, effort, and study went into constructing it—but it was all for naught. The idea was dropped during test screenings because audiences found the subtitles distracting.
15. Take a Rain Check?
It took forever for The Dark Crystal to finally hit theaters. This happened largely because ITC Entertainment was sold to Robert Holmes à Court, Australia’s first billionaire. Holmes à Court didn’t think the film had much potential after lackluster reactions to the preview. In the end, Henson had to take matters into his own hands, buying the film back from Holmes à Court and funding its release with his own money.
16. No Humans Beyond This Point
AI is taking service jobs, and it seems Henson thought puppets would be coming for the acting industry. The Dark Crystal was billed as the first live-action film that had zero humans in it, “a showcase for cutting-edge animatronics.”
17. Heavy Lifting
Puppeteering is a dangerous profession. Some of Thra’s larger creatures had puppeteers inside of them and were extremely exhausting to manipulate. The monstrous Garthim costumes were so exhausting to operate that the puppeteers hung on racks inside the costume every few minutes to give themselves a break.
18. Miming Through the Motions
Did you know mimes are still real? Henson and co. hired a Swiss mime to choreograph for the puppeteers and their creatures!
19. Sinful Skeksis
When it came to The Dark Crystal’s villains, Henson went straight to the heart of evil for inspiration. Each Skeksis was based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins (something of a conundrum, given there are 10 Skeksis), and the monsters’ robes were each meant to provide hints about their personalities.
20. Froud-enstein’s Monsters
Brian Froud, the film’s concept artist, used a smorgasbord of animals like puzzle pieces to create the Skeksis. Originally modeled after deep-sea fish (ew), the final design was equal parts reptile, dragon, and predatory bird.
21. It Takes a Village
Each Skeksis required two performers to operate; one for the face and left arm, and a second for the right arm. The puppeteers couldn’t see, well, anything, so they had monitors tied to their chests with a direct feed from the film cameras, which at least gave them some idea of what they were doing.
22. Mystical Movements
Even including the complex Skeksis and bestially-heavy Garthim, the hardest creatures to operate were the Mystics. Doing so required the performer to be on their haunches with their right arm fully extended, carrying the entire weight of the Mystic’s head. Henson himself couldn’t hold the “Mystic position” for longer than 10 seconds at a time.
23. Look, Ma! That’s Me!
Every author puts themselves in the story in some form or another. Henson’s “avatar” in Dark Crystal was the last living Gelfling and protagonist, Jen.
24. Don’t Shop There
Who could forget the iconic witch/goddess/grouch old woman, Aughra. Originally, her name was supposed to be Habbetabat. Froud demanded the name be changed because, get this, it sounded too much like “Habitat,” the name of a store that he absolutely despised.
25. Fuzzy Friend
Frank Oz adamantly wanted a cutesie fur-friend in Dark Crystal, mainly as a vehicle for showing off the nurturing, motherly side of Kira’s character. Enter Fizzgig!
26. Potatoes; the Most Versatile of Foods
Froud wanted Podlings to be really connected with the Earth and nature, and you don’t get earthier than a potato. Ergo, Podlings are based after spuds.
27. Stiff Competition
When The Dark Crystal came out, it was up against some big names. Y’all have heard of the beloved little alien E.T. and drag actress extraordinaire Tootsie? Both of their movies were playing when The Dark Crystal was finally released.
28. Niche, But Successful
It was a slow burn to success, with hurdles popping up from every direction, but The Dark Crystal remains one of the highest-grossing puppet movies of all time!
29. Acquired Taste
To say The Dark Crystal was met with “mixed reactions” is an understatement. Some (Rotten Tomatoes) say the film’s main appeal is in the visuals, while others (Vincent Canby of The New York Times) have described it as “watered down J.R.R. Tolkien.” Ultimately, however, it has earned its title as a cult classic, maybe in part to loyal Jim Henson fans.
30. Films Fantastical
Over time, The Dark Crystal has been recognized as more than a masterful feat of puppetry, and acknowledged as a great work of fantasy in general! In fact, the American Film Institute nominated it for their Top 10 Fantasy Films list in 2008!
31. Canonical Fanfiction
When author A.C.H. Smith started writing a tie-in novel for the Dark Crystal universe, Jim Henson loved the idea. So much so that he actually considered the novel canon!
32. Literary Lineage
If you want the full set-up for Netflix’s prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, then you’ve got some studying up to do. There’s a series of four novels that lays the groundwork for the setting and events of the show—better get reading!
33. More to Come?
The first Dark Crystal wasn’t even finished before Jim Henson and writer David Odell started discussing a sequel. However, it took 25 years for Odell and his wife to piece together what Odell could remember from these conversations into a draft script, which was called, “The Power of the Dark Crystal.”
34. Wait For It…
The sequel was taking a long, long, long time. Some of the reasons for this were announced in a 2010 press release: Odell’s script was being reworked by a different screenwriter, Craig Pearce, and the film was to be released in stereoscopic 3D!
35. Any Day Now, Promise!
In 2011, Cheryl Henson (Jim’s daughter) broke Dark Crystal fans’ hearts. She announced the sequel was on hiatus. Again. Some production partners jumped ship due to budgetary concerns. Three years later, Lisa Henson (another daughter) confirmed that The Power of the Dark Crystal was still in development. Alas, this was false hope…
36. LOL Just Kidding
The Power of the Dark Crystal never happened. At least, not as a movie. However, it was at least adapted into a 12-part comic book series of the same, released in 2017.
37. Now in Kids’ Sizes!
Remember how Henson wanted The Dark Crystal to be scary for kids? Well, a few authors ruined that with their kid-friendly book adaptations, including The Tale of the Dark Crystal by Donna Bass with illustrations by Bruce McNally, and the more recent Dark Crystal Tales by Cory Godbey, a book of children’s short stories.
38. What Kind of Game Are You Playing?
There are tons of Dark Crystal games that, like the sequel, never happened. A roleplaying game and board game were both in the works in 2011, but they’ve yet to see the light of day.
39. Make Children Afraid Again
There’s something disturbing about the Dark Crystal universe, and that’s very deliberate. Oz has said Henson thought a dose of fear was healthy for children and wanted to “get back to the darkness of the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales.”
40. All Snow No Flight Makes Henson a Dark Boy
The Dark Crystal has an eerily familiar origin story. Reminiscent of Jack Torrance from The Shining (eek!), Henson put pen to paper and wrote the source material for the movie (a 25-page story simply called “The Crystal”) when he was snowed in at an airport hotel.
41. What’d the Podlings Ever Do to You?
Now, while Henson loved extending The Dark Crystal in the form of a novel, he and Smith had one major disagreement. The subject of their tiff? Podlings. Smith thought they were boring and hated them so much he wrote one scene that Henson considered to be “gratuitous cruelty.” The scene featured a sack of the potato people being thrown off a cliff and crushed. Sure, Henson wanted the world to be dark, but not that dark.