SAN DIEGO — In the late 1970s, with his creative instincts and Hollywood power swelling to their greatest levels up to that point, "Muppets" creator Jim Henson found himself obsessed with the dark, deranged work of English illustrator Brian Froud.
He befriended the children's-book author and recruited longtime collaborator Frank Oz, and together the three spent the next half-decade developing an ambitious, human-free movie that would mix the world of Froud with equal parts "Lord of the Rings" and Kermit the Frog.
The result was 1982's "The Dark Crystal," a fantasy flick that debuted as a commercial and critical failure and has since lived on as a fondly remembered near-classic along the lines of '80s movies such as "Tron" and "The Last Starfighter." Frustrated by the limitations of technology, Henson, who died in 1990, took to discussing two different "Dark" visions in interviews: the film his imagination had longed for and the version hindered by fishing line and awkward action sequences.
Now, like a woodland creature called to action by Gelfling heroine Kira, "The Dark Crystal" is preparing to rise up again. And this time it has technology on its side, along with one of the hottest action directors in all of geekdom.
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Such a tribute would be impossible without remembering the man who was a quarter-century ahead of his time. And as the film enters production, it should be quite easy for Tartakovsky to remember Henson daily, since Henson's daughter Lisa is producing.
"Puppetry has come a long way since 'The Dark Crystal,' " said the amicable co-CEO of the Jim Henson Company. "When 'The Dark Crystal' was made, it was the first time that all those techniques were really refined to the degree that they could be put in a feature film. Since then, puppetry has come so far that the puppets we're going to use are going to be much more emotive than the originals. In addition to that, we can augment them with digital effects, but very subtly."
The "Power" script continues the tale of elfin heroes Jen and Kira, last seen returning the shard to the evil crystal and seemingly abolishing the vulture-like Skeksis from their land. Set many years after the first flick, "Power" casts Jen and Kira as king and queen, now overseeing a kingdom whose peace is disturbed by a visit from the underground-dwelling U-mun people. After the Gelflings refuse their request for a shard of crystal that could preserve the U-mun race, a desperate visitor takes it anyway, threatening their world with another thousand years of chaos.
"[David Odell], who wrote this film with his wife, is the original writer of 'The Dark Crystal,' and he had discussed this sequel concept with Jim," Lisa Henson said. "They didn't get too far into it, but [Odell] had a pretty good memory of the basic bones of the sequel idea."
Froud, who has since designed "Labyrinth" (1986) and the recent "Peter Pan" flick while also developing his respected career as an illustrator, has been hard at work sketching new storyboards for the sequel, and he couldn't be happier about his rare second chance.
"When we created the original 'Dark Crystal,' we created a whole world," noted the artist, known for his unique combinations of acrylic, colored pencils, pastels and inks. "It had many levels, and we already invented a lot of things that we never got to see in the movie. Now we have the opportunity to explore."
Tartakovsky was hand-selected by George Lucas to create the "Clone Wars" cartoons for his "Star Wars" universe (see " 'Clone Wars' Animator Tapped To Helm 'Dark Crystal' Sequel"), a series so beloved that many fans consider it to be the prequel Lucas should have made. Now he's ready to once again bring renewed life to a legend's passion project. And after the original flick's clunky Garthim-versus-Landstriders battle and Jen's laugh-out-loud climactic jump onto the crystal, audiences are likely to appreciate the skilled touch of an action director.
"We can have a puppeteer in a blue suit holding the puppets and moving them around, and then we'll just take the puppeteer out," Tartakovsky said, going far beyond the days when Henson had four or five people squatting beneath each puppet. "Now we can put the puppet's feet on the puppeteer and connect their hands, and they can actually move them around."
The "Crouching Tiger"-esque results will then be placed on backgrounds that will replace the "Land of the Lost" look with sets that make you feel like you've fallen into one of Froud's books. "The new technology will take it to another level," the illustrator said. "When Jim Henson came to visit me in England, he loved the landscape, the rocks, the trees all covered in moss, the streams. I want 'Dark Crystal' to feel like that.
"A great friend of mine is Alan Lee, who won an Oscar for his designs for 'Lord of the Rings,' " Froud continued. "People often say, 'Why does "Dark Crystal" look like "The Lord of the Rings"?' And I say, 'Well, both Alan and I live in the same village, in the same English landscape, and as artists we are informed by our own landscapes.' "
Now that audiences have fallen in love with Lee's style — and the computer-generated hobbits, elves and walking trees that came with it — they may finally be ready for a drop-kicking Muppet. Tartakovsky is happy to oblige, working with Froud on updated versions of Jen and Kira, the mystic urSol, one-eyed psychic Aughra, the Skeksis and the Garthim.
"We will definitely have some of the puppeteers do the voices, but coming from animation, I have such respect and adoration for the voice-over community. I want to put that into the mix too," Tartakovsky said. "And maybe some celebrities. Who knows?
"We have a lot of conception design done," Tartakovsky continued. "We'll start pre-production this fall, and then by next fall we will probably have a release."
Jim Henson never lived to see Gollum, but now that skinny CGI creature might finally allow his "Dark Crystal" imaginings to come to life. And if that isn't a convincing enough reason why a second Gelfling tale will work, Tartakovsky offered up a few more. "It's the daughter of the guy who did it, and the guy who designed it," he said. "If I was going with a new designer and a different puppeteer company, I would be a lot more nervous. We are coming from a sincere point of view."
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