Fantasy Films 101.03 1982's "The Dark Crystal"
There are just too many great fantasy films! Last time, I had to leave out two of 1981's great films - Dragonslayer and the immortal Excalibur. This time, there are four classics, but I don't have to decide because you've decided for me. This week, by popular demand, we'll explore the legendary Dark Crystal.
Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, The Dark Crystal broke many of the rules, and because of that wound up being considered a commercial flop when it first hit theatres. Despite winning many awards for special effects, including the Avoriaz prize for best fantasy film, the fact that it was the first film to feature an all-puppet cast took it over budget, and resulted in less-than-stellar box office performance. The film was also considered by many critics to be too dark, although that dark magic must have done something right, since it led directly to the formation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
Like many fantasy films, the plot of The Dark Crystal is a bit thin at points, which was another reason it was roundly criticized. However, there's still plenty of ammunition to load up on for a night or two of gaming.
The plot begins with a legend - the legend of (duh) The Dark Crystal. A thousand years ago, a race of beings known as Urskeks damaged this ancient crystal. In fragmenting the crystal, they, too, were fragmented, split into the evil birdlike Skeksis and the lumbering UrRu. Oh, and an age of chaos began, too.
Seems the Skeksis got all the strength and power and motivation, and much like the Dark Side they managed to lay waste to all who opposed them, even going so far as to completely wipe out all traces of a race known as the Gelflings. Well, almost. Knowing that this was all prophesied to happen, the wise UrRu took it upon themselves to rescue and raise a single Gelfling child by the name of Jen. And when Jen comes of age, he's sent on a legendary journey to find his destiny.
Along the way, Jen meets up with a wise one-eyed mystic named Aughra who takes him to her observatory and gives him the shard, which with he is told he will be able to heal the Dark Crystal. Why the urgency? Well, it seems that the Great Conjunction of the planet's three suns is coming up soon, and if the crystal is not healed before then, the world will be plunged into eternal chaos. It's sort of what will happen if Bush gets elected in November, only not quite so bad.
At any rate, when the Skeksis send beasts known as Garthim to capture Jen, he flees into the forest. It is there that he discovers a small animal with huge teeth named Fizzgig, and through him, the animal's owner - a female Gelfling named Kira. They return to Kira's village, where she lives with Podlings, but again the Garthim show up and ruin everyone's fun, taking the Podlings hostage and sending the two Gelflings on the run.
Kira manages to call some Land Striders, who get them near their goal, but Jen and Kira are soon cornered against a cliff and forced to leap off... at which point it is revealed that female Gelflings have wings. The two then sneak into the castle, where Kira and the Podlings are captured and/or killed while Jen heals the crystal. Nobody seems to think it might be easier for the Gelfling who can FLY to reach the top of the crystal. Boys will be boys, I guess.
Anyway, it all comes together nicely. The Skeksis and UrRu are joined once more into the Urskeks, Kira is healed, and the two Gelflings are left in charge of the healed Crystal of Truth. Oh, and presumably there will be lots of little Gelflings too. The end.
Of course, it needn't wrap up in 93 minutes for your characters. What's key here, as always, are the main features of this story:
- A young hero. In this case, he's also the last of his race, and thus charged not only with staying alive long enough to hopefully procreate, but with saving the entire world. Not an easy task. Good thing he has help from...
- A motley band of companions. Through his travels, he meets up with Aughra, who can easily be your typical witch or wizard in a cave; Jen, a female ranger-like Gelfling who happens to be able to fly; Fizzgig, a ball of fur with an attitude; and the Podlings, who are... well... OK, the Podlings are pretty useless.
- An ancient magical item. In this case, the item is not a weapon per se, but rather a means of healing the cracked crystal. This could be a sliver of some ancient artifact, or the gem which will conveniently fit into the empty eyehole of the angry volcano god's statue, or the missing energy rod which powers the only remaining weapon which can possibly stop an evil force from ruling the world. Which takes us to...
- Wicked evil bad guys. The nifty thing here is that the bad guys are actually the good guys, sort of. If you kill a bad guy, you also kill one of the good guys, since they're halves of the same fragmented creature. Try throwing that one on your players - they arrive with an army of mystical wizards, and as they're popping off bad guys left and right, their own army is being decimated too. Which of course, brings us to the ever-popular...
- Unbeatable odds. You're the last of your race. You're just a kid. Your only real backup consists of a girl, a ball of fuzz and a crazy one-eyed psycho woman. And a race of weird Fraggle Rock-like things. And you have to save the world. By tomorrow. If that's not unbeatable odds, I don't know what is. But of course, you're the hero, so you'll pull it off somehow.
- Fizzgig. The real star of the movie, as far as I'm concerned, is Fizzgig. He looks cute, he sounds cute, but he's got a mouth bigger than his entire head and an attitude to boot. Voiced by Percy Edwards (who would later go on to do the voice of Ambrosius in Labyrinth, and vocalizations for the Alien creatures in the Alien films), he's a laugh a minute. But of course, that bite can pack quite a wallop, so he's probably also a great "deus ex machina" - just when the heroes are in for it, the little ball of fur shows up and bails them out.
It's fairly easy to drop a storyline like this into your campaign. If you're looking for a one-nighter, you simply have a strange humanoid creature show up, claiming to be the last of his race, enlisting the aid of the characters in performing a noble quest that will save the entire world. If you want something a little more long-term, throw this burden onto one of the existing characters. Being told you're NOT REALLY human, but are instead the last of an ancient race, and the one prophesied to save the world, can put quite a damper on plans.
Some things to consider:
- Supporting cast members can, and should, die off rapidly. Podlings are tossed about like Lemmings, the Land Striders don't fare too well, and the Skeksis are doing a pretty good job of killing themselves off, not to mention taking out the UrRu in the process. People actually die. I like that.
- Powerful ancient beings. It might not be easy to work in a powerful ancient race as easy as it is to drop other things in. If you're building a campaign from scratch, it's easy. But if you've got an established campaign world, try whittling down the bad guys from 18 to 1 or 2. Or maybe it's a small cluster of necromancers battling some good wizards. Or perhaps it's evil clerics versus good ones. Or dark elves versus wood elves. Or Duergar versus dwarves. The possibilities are endless.
- Keep it moving. In this one, once they're sent on their quest there's no time for our heroes to rest. The bad guys are constantly sending their minions out to harass them and try to kill them. By the time they reach the castle / tower / temple / Republican campaign headquarters, the heroes will be worn out, resources and energy depleted. This makes that last battle for the fate of all mankind all the more interesting.
Well, that's about all the time I have for now. I'm really considering taking another episode to cover one of 1982's other classics. So which should it be: Arnold Schwarzenegger in the "face paint and wizards turning into snakes gorefest" known as Conan the Barbarian, Matt Houston in the "blood and gratuitous nudity with a 3-bladed sword" filled Sword and the Sorcerer, or Marc Singer in the "cute ferrets and leatherboys with green slime stuff ickiness" of Beastmaster?