‘The Dark Crystal’ with puppeteer Dave Barclay

darkcrystalposter

Film: The Dark Crystal (1982)
Directed by: Frank Oz and Jim Henson
Written by: Jim Henson (story) and David Odell (screenplay)
Puppeteers: Jim Henson as Jen
                          Kathryn Mullen as Kira
                          Frank Oz as Aughra and Chamberlain
                          Dave Goelz as Fizzgig

By: Bo from Last Blog on the Left

gelflingsFormer memories: One of the benefits of being involved with Natsukashi is the rediscovery of a film that lingered in memory as a child very distinctly, but becomes something else entirely when seen through the eyes of an adult.  The Dark Crystalwas such an experience, a movie that was best recalled as a source of fear when I was a child (those creepy Skeksis still give me the wiggins). 

skeksisAs a young boy, I was terrified of the beaked Skeksis, the Garthim, creatures existing somewhere on the evolutionary ladder between a beetle and a crab, and the horrible fates of the Podlings as their life essence is drained for the use of the warped Skeksis civilization.  These are the perceptions of a child, one who has grown accustomed to fears, now, but was rattled by these images when first exposed to them. 

aughraNew memories: As a grown-up, what I found upon a return to the world of The Dark Crystal was something I not only didn’t remember clearly, but was amazed by: the beauty of this film.  In a world dominated by CG imagery, The Dark Crystal is a deep and satisfyingly real movie experience, and I was reminded of how a movie could create such an authentic experience while wrapping itself in imagery that is decidedly authentic while remaining imaginative and unique. 

Within the film, there are hints of Eastern philosophy, mythology that is worthy of dissection by the Joseph Campbell crowd and a hero that is as naive as he is brave.  Speaking with one of the creators of this film has been one of several highlights of recent years, and getting a glimpse of David Barclay’s work not only gave me an appreciation for the film’s tricks, it made it all the more magical for the twinkle in the artist’s eye that can still be heard clearly.

Download Natsukashi’s ‘Dark Crystal’ podcast

or transport yourself below to our on-site player

Our featured guest: Puppeteer Dave Barclay

davedarkcrystalDave has had the kind of career that most sci-fi/fantasy geeks dream would sever an appendage for. Learning a craft of on-screen puppetry under the caring eye of  Jim Henson, starting your career by bringing Yoda to life. Working with Roger Rabbit, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, as well as the much-anticipated Spike Jonze adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, Dave’s work reads like a laundry list of movie lovers’ desert island features.

dave yodaDave is living the dream, quite literally, as it was his desire as a young child to pull the strings as a puppeteer. The Dark Crystal was one of his earliest gigs (after assisting in a couple of small films called The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and, as the first Brit to do so, he perfected his craft in the house that Muppets built, the Jim Henson Company.

Today, he continues to stretch the limits of his craft, working with both the digital technology as well as the time-honored art he grew up with.

We were quite honored to have Dave join us and we know that a lot of Natsukashi listeners will enjoy his recollections of time spent on such influential films.

Episode XXXIII: ‘The Great Muppet Caper’

great_muppet_caper

Title: The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Rated: G
Directed by: Jim Henson
Starring: Kermit T. Frog
                   Miss Piggy
                   Fozzie Bear
                   Gonzo
                   Scooter

By: Count Vardulon

Pre-Screening Memories: While the Muppets were introduced in the mid-70s, and the show was cancelled in 1981, I truly belive it’s my generation, the children of the early 80s, who benefitted most from Jim Henson’s creations. Gathering the whole family around the television once a week to watch the new episode of the Muppet Show is nice, but being able to watch an episode every single day after school allowed me to be absolutely bombarded by Muppet-dom.

Adding to my absolute submersion in all things Muppet-y is the fact that the early 80s was the kick-off point for the Jim Henson Explosion, where fans were able to watch syndicated Muppets, Fraggle Rock, and Muppet Babies every single week. It was a good time to be young.

There was, however, one tiny gap in my Muppet fandom – because I was too young to see it when it came out, and too poor to have a VCR when it was on video, I never saw the Muppet Movie. A condition that persists to this day. Knowing the movie was out there and not having seen it was bad enough, but being the only one among my circle of friends that had missed out made me feel like I was just short of a Pariah.

So when I heard about The Great Muppet Caper, I knew I wasn’t going to miss this one. Then I did, in theatre, anyhow. Trips to the big screen were few and far between during my childhood, reserved only for films so important that the entire family absolutely had to see it. Which usually wound up being films that scarred me for life, like Swamp Thing, Wrath of Khan, and the big Kahuna – Transformers: The Movie. For one reason or another, Great Muppet Caper didn’t fit that criteria. I had one card left to play, though – a little something called the ‘Free Weekend’, th ose three days every year when the pay TV channels descrambled enough that the underpriveleged had a chance to pack a whole year’s worth of movie-watching into 72 beautiful hours of television.

Which is how I saw The Great Muppet Caper for the first time, and almost the last. I managed to catch it on regular television a couple of times over the next few years, but for some reason never watched it again in later life. In retrospect, I find this incredibly strange, since I credit the Muppets in general, and my two viewings of this film specifically, with defining my entire sense of humor. While I may not remember the plot’s specifics now – something about Charles Grodin being a jewel thief, and showing off their new muppet technology by having them swim and ride bikes, and, of course, the Oscar the Grouch cameo (huge for anyone Seasame Street devotee) – it’s the style of comedy that stuck with me.

I found the fact that characters in the movie were talking directly to me rather than each other to be an entirely new kind of comedy. These days I recognize that breaking the fourth wall is as old as the hills, but as a child the fact that the movie opened with the mai n characters discussing the credits, then moved on to the movie’s first song, which, as I recall, was a celebration of the fact that they were making a movie.

After seeing it, I became nuts for the entire style of comedy – anything with a wink or a nod to the audience was good enough for me, and while I may have gotten a little more discerning with age, I still find post-modern comedy and meta-commentary the absolute funniest types of humour, something I can guarantee wouldn’t be true if I hadn’t seen this film as a young child.

The thing I’m most interested in finding out about the movie is just how much of that comedy is based on this principle – really I want to know if my entire sense of humour is based on an entire movie, or just the opening sequence. Even more importantly, though, I’m desperate to discover if my childhood self was utterly deluded or if this was, in fact, the funniest movie ever made.

New memories – Well, if it’s not the funniest movie of all time (Ghostbusters, naturally), it really belongs in the top five or ten. That’s right, the thing that I first noticed when starting to watch it for the first time in nearly two decades is just how incredibly funny it is. There’s barely a moment that goes by in the film without a laugh, but more than the volume of the humour, it’s the variety that stands out. There are so many films out there that attempt to offer jokes both for the children in the audience as well as their parents, generally with disasterous results. As a general rule, it breaks down into “crude slapstick for the kiddies, double-entendres and awkward recent cultural references for the adults”. For a perfect recent example of this formula, just view any film from the Shrek series.

The Great Muppet Caper takes an entirely different tack – instead of aiming their jokes down at the assumed-to-be uninformed audience of children, nearly every joke in the picture is pointed squarely at their parents. During the few breaks in my laughter, I couldn’t help but wonder what Henson’s game was, and more importantly, what could I possibly have found funny in this film as a 5 or 6 year old? A little after the halfway point, as I watched Peter Falk (TV’s Columbo!) give one of the most absurdly comic speeches in the history of cinema, I realized what was going on in the film. Henson and company weren’t trying to entertain children, they were trying to educate them! Just as Sesame Street used Muppets as the sugar coating to help children swallow math and linguistic lessons, The Great Muppet Caper uses Muppets as a way of teaching children how to have a well-rounded sense of humor. It’s a simple trick: in a normal film, little children see a character fart or fa ll over, and they laugh.

In this film, they see a puppety oddball make a wonderfully clever or absurd turn of phrase, and their parents laugh. Even though they’re not sure why it was funny, the children laugh along because they don’t want to be left out. Then later, they ask their parents why a certain moment or line was so funny, and an inquisitive comedic mind is born. It’s genius. Henson knew that just putting the Muppets onscreen would get kids into the theatre seats – most people would have exploited that opportunity to get lazy and coast their way to an easy check, but instead, the filmmakers did something far more complicated and ambitious.

I haven’t even talked about the amazing cast yet! I had vague memories of Charles Grodin and John Cleese being in the film, but I had no idea that Diana Rigg (Emma Peel!) played the fashion designer/habitual victim of jewel theivery, who delivers the film’s second-funniest monologue. The Cleese scene is so brilliant that it could be a short film in and of itself – if it wasn’t ghost-written by him I’d be incredibly surprised, especially when I saw who was cast as his wife. And Grodin is absolutely hilarious, utterly selling his infatuation with Miss Piggy and doing some of the best ‘treating puppet as person’ acting I’ve seen, albeit filtered through Grodin’s slightly ironically detached screen persona.

Going into this movie I knew that much of my sense of humour could be traced back to it (absurdism, monsters talking to people, meta-comedy), and I assumed that the film had just been so funny that I’d been indoctrinated by the hilarity. Until actually watching the film, it never occurred to me that the idoctrination could have been the filmmakers’ intended goal. Looking back at it now, I realize that Henson and compnay were, most likely, looking upon the film as a device for creating lifelong fans of both their specific characters and the type of comedy they wanted to create.

Considering both my tastes and the amount of muppet paraphernalia I possess, I can safely say: Mission Accomplished.

Listen to count’s investigation into The Great Muppet Caper here, or use the handy device below:

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