- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A truly epic, 1980s fantasy adventure from a pair of master puppeteers returns for fans to celebrate through the newly digitally restored, ultra-high definition version of The Dark Crystal: Anniversary Edition (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, rated PG, 93 minutes, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, $30.99).

The late Jim Henson and Yoda’s best buddy Frank Oz co-directed this odd film back in 1982 that featured wild designs from fantasy illustrator Brian Fround, an entire puppet cast, and groundbreaking practical, animatronic effects.

The simple story of evil versus good plays out through two races, the ruling malevolent bird-like lizards called the Skeksis and lumbering, kindly, six-limbed wizards called the UrRu or Mystics.

Both look to restore a massive crystal when their planet’s three suns align and each with opposite objectives. The Skeksis want to remain in power while the Mystics want to reunite the species.

The Mystics’ only hope to restore the order is an elfin-like Gelding named Jen and his shard that remains the key to their success.

Although the puppeteering was certainly pioneering at the time, it still looks like watching a more complex version of Henson’s “Land of the Gorch” skits on “Saturday Night Live.” Anybody remember those?

The production does shine due to the amazing creature designs not limited to the actions of the two major species, especially watching the Skeksis eating like gluttons at a banquet.

Also kudos to such creations as a fuzzy pooch with two jaws named Fizzgig, bipedal land bats called Landstriders, a “Tales of the Crypt”-looking astronomer Aughra and an army of massive ticks with claws called Garthims.

For as much as the film is a family friendly dose of New Age optimism and harmony, it has many a darker moment that might frighten younger children, so parents beware.

4K in action: Supervised by Henson’s son Brian, the new ultra-high definition restoration was created using the original 35 mm camera negatives, and the cleaned-up results are often stunning.

Despite the effort, viewers should keep in mind that they are still looking at a three-decade-old movie and should expect some grain and not the visual acuity of such efforts as “Thor: Ragnarok” or “Dunkirk.”

Still, the colors and detail really pop on screen with the Skeksis elders’ ornate Elizabethan costuming featuring gold-tinged robes and jewelry standing out as much as the horror of looking a one of the creatures disrobed with its skeletal, bird-like body and rotting teeth.

I also quickly noticed the detail in the fine age lines of the elder Mystic, the armor-encrusted Garthims and the character wigs that looked like they were pulled from a Halloween store aisle.

Additionally, viewers will savor the textures and hue upgrades of the Mystics marching in a field of burnt red flowers and the Gelflings hanging out in a saturated, vegetative forest that looks like an above-ground version of a coral reef.

One of the greatest-looking 4K moments, accentuated by the high dynamic range enhancements, was when Jen walks into a room holding Aughra’s rotating orrery. The massive solar system model with its rusted orbs features a color scheme one might see on a sun-drenched oil slick.

Viewers might also want to watch the Blu-ray version of the film upscaled with a 4K player and a 4K television with standard, factory settings. They will be surprised at how rich the visuals look, with often deeper color saturation in some scenes than the UHD equivalent.

Best extras: The bonus content delivers a ton of great background on the film almost entirely culled from previous DVD, laser disc and Blu-ray releases from 2009 and earlier.

However, before diving into the old extras, the anniversary edition does offer one new featurette. Fround’s son Toby and Henson’s daughter Lisa (CEO of the Henson Co.) offer a 10-minute, too-short look back at the film that is more nostalgic than informative.

Once watched, I suggest diving into a trio of vintage extras exhaustively covering the production.

First, an hourlong documentary mixes archival interviews of Fround, Henson, Mr. Oz and producer Gary Kurtz with moments such as Fround sketching, the puppeteers practicing, and the effects team building the puppets while offering tons of concept art and storyboards. 

The resolution is terrible (480p standard definition with plenty of aberrations in the print), but the information is great.

Next an optional commentary with Fround finds a very chatty artist talking like he was giving a lecture. He dives into detail on a film that took up five years of his life and discusses such minutiae as using glass paintings (with oils mixing in a tank) to create some of the skies; how the cinematographer tried to bring his illustrations to almost too literal life; and the importance of creating a physical and not too digital reality for movie audience.

Finally, watch the movie one more time and turn on a pop-up track that presents storyboard sequences, illustrations, and concept art and facts about the production shown in a large box in the right corner that covers roughly 25 percent of the screen. 

Highlighted are works from Fround, artist Bill Stallion, set designer Harry Lange, production painter Roy Carnon, and sketch artists Mike Ploog and Denis Rich.

And, if that’s not enough, die-hard fans will find another hour’s worth of production featurettes, including original Skeksis language test scenes.

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