Of all the new TV series released this summer, the one that I least expected to be writing about is Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. It’s a star-studded sequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 puppet fantasy film, updated to reflect advances in special effects. But even though I don’t care for the movie (at all), Jim Henson remains a hero of mine, and a story about him making the original Dark Crystal is one of my favorite stories of creative courage.
Jim Henson was at the height of his Muppets fame. He had the hottest show on television, he was expanding into movies and merchandising, and he easily could have lived the rest of his life with minimal challenges. But he found himself overcome with the desire to direct a mature fantasy film, even though nothing on his resume suggested he could do it. But that had never stopped him before, so he devoted years of his life to writing, designing, and directing The Dark Crystal. It was hardcore fantasy, decades before the Lord of the Rings movies made fantasy almost-cool. And to make matters worse, he decided to film virtually all of the movie in a made-up language. It didn’t make sense to him that fantastic creatures who had never met a human being would speak English. He thought audiences would be able to follow the story without knowing the words, the way people enjoy opera.
It turns out he was dramatically overestimating both his viewers and his own storytelling ability, because test audiences hated the film. It’s hard to blame them. But Henson was still proud of the story he wrote and the film’s puppetry. So, at the last minute, he decided to re-dub the entire film in English. He had to write a new script that kept the original story, AND every line had to match up with the mouth motions of the puppets in the movie. He somehow did it, and was able to tell the same story with a film that he had already shot.
But his financiers were getting impatient, eager to just write the film off as a loss. But he couldn’t stand to see his work abandoned, so he took virtually all of the cash that he had in the world and bought the film from the producers. He then financed the re-dubbing himself, and had a finished product that he could be proud of.
It’s hard to think of a better example of betting on yourself. Making this movie was enough of a risk, but then he put his entire net worth into a last-ditch attempt to fix it. He ended up making his money back and then some, even if the film received mediocre reviews, but that doesn’t make him any less courageous. The movie, and every subsequent ad for the new show, reminds me of why our greatest creators are so great. They never stop evolving, never stop taking risks, and when they know they have something good on their hands, they stick with it long after the rest of us would have quit.
Student, blogger, risk respecter