'Dark Crystal' a new direction in high-tech fantasy

The Dark Crystal takes a fresh approach to fantasy filmmaking. Using sophisticated puppets and high-tech production devices - there's not one human character in the whole movie - directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz (of Muppet fame) have opened up new territory between traditional cartooning and ''live action'' drama.

The technique has its shortcomings. Puppets can't express the nuances of thought and emotion that are integral to human performers. Some scenes are gimmicky. Different staging methods, used to achieve diverse effects, occasionally clash with one another. Some characters are less convincingly designed and deployed than others.

When the approach works, though, it has surprising impact. Since the characters are fantastic to begin with, they carry us through the wildest plot twists with no loss of plausibility. And when the filmmakers decide to zap us with all the surprises in their repertoire, there are few limits to how far they can soar. ''The Dark Crystal'' is more vision than epic. As such, it has no rules to follow but its own.

The story is recycled Tolkein with a twist. In a distant place and time, a young, elflike ''gelfling'' must embark on a quest to find and repair a mythical crystal in order to vanquish the villains who rule his world. He meets the obstacles and challenges that usually mark such a heroic enterprise, and hooks up with an attractive girl gelfling who becomes his partner. The climax is suitably suspenseful.

Not much is very original or surprising about all this. My 11-year-olds enjoyed the film, but noted how standard the story line was. They also criticized the predictability of its happy ''surprise'' finale, and one complained that the supposedly fabulous setting of the last scene looked like a country club in the Poconos.

What makes the movie worthwhile is the extravagance of its best sequences, and the intensity that's eventually generated by the sheer fantasticality of it all. At its most effective, ''The Dark Crystal'' has the sneaky verisimilitude of a very vivid dream. It's an engaging fantasy. Henson's 'new creatures'

Talking about ''The Dark Crystal'' in his bustling headquarters here, Jim Henson doesn't seem quite sure what to call the cinematic form he's pioneering. It's not animation, he insists, because that means drawings or ''stop-motion'' techniques, whereas his characters move in real time. ''It's a movie with creatures,'' he finally decides. ''We use the word the word creatures a lot. . . .''

When the film was being conceived - with the help of Henson's own children, who joined in early discussions of the project - it was the ''creatures'' that came first, rather than the details of the plot. ''The concept, the style, and some of the characters were the first things we worked out,'' the filmmaker said.

''We wanted to find out who these characters were, what their movements were like, what sort of world they lived in.'' The idea was to imagine that world as completely as possible, letting its own ''story reasons'' emerge naturally and organically. This seemed a more logical approach than choosing some fantasy-adventure plot and then figuring out how to put it on screen.

Henson acknowledges that in some ways puppetry is a limited form compared with other storytelling methods. ''There are things we can do better than other forms,'' he said, ''and things we can't do so effectively.'' The trick is to choose a story that can best be told in that particular medium, and develop it accordingly.

The great advantage of puppetry is its lifelike quality, compared with traditional animation. ''There's a sense of real performance that cartoons just don't give you,'' said Henson. ''Animation is cool, because you don't have the emotions of the actors.''

As a director, he seeks to capture the personalities of his performers as well as his characters. He wants his work to be as warm and lifelike as possible , and designed ''The Dark Crystal'' with this in mind. Hence the humanlike qualities of the gelflings that are the heroes of the tale. Henson grants that they aren't as flamboyant as many other characters, or even as interesting. ''But they serve as a bridge to the audience,'' he said, stressing that their very ordinariness helps to orient the viewer in the bizarre and sometimes nightmarish ''Dark Crystal'' world.

To make that world come alive on film, Henson and co-director Frank Oz (who also collaborated on the successful Muppet television characters) used any trick or technique they felt would work. In most scenes, each puppet character is manipulated by a single performer who speaks the dialogue and creates the most prominent gestures. Helping out is a team of assistants who move arms and legs, make facial expressions, and contribute other nuances - sometimes mechanically, sometimes by remote control.

Where other methods were needed to come up with a particular shot, they were improvised. The only rule was to maintain a feeling of real life, real time, and real emotion.

Henson doesn't feel ''The Dark Crystal'' is aimed at a particular audience, either of children or adults, although he feels the PG rating is appropriate, given the physical roughness of some scenes. ''I never really aim at anyone,'' he said, granting that even the exception to this rule - ''Sesame Street'' - has attracted many grown-ups in addition to the preschoolers it was devised for.

In the end, it seems, ''The Dark Crystal'' is aimed at satisfying Henson's own sense of fun and fantasy. Like a true storyteller, he doesn't expect his audience to believe in anything he doesn't believe in first. Australian film

The director and star of ''My Brilliant Career'' are back, with projects as different as can be from that sunny hit.

Gillian Armstrong, the best-known woman filmmaker from Australia, is represented by ''Starstruck,'' a rambunctious musical (reviewed in this column on Dec. 9, 1982). Now her erstwhile colleague, actress Judy Davis, has also made a return visit to American screens. In a drama called Winter of Our Dreams, she plays a prostitute who befriends a young writer as he investigates the death of an old crony from his Vietnam-war-protest days.

As written and directed by Australian filmmaker John Duigan, the film is muted in tone and sensitively assembled despite the potentially sordid aspects of its subject matter. And the best thing about it is Miss Davis, who gives as imaginative and meticulously detailed a performance as we've had in a long time. Here's hoping we see a lot more of her.

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