Fantasy is hard. People talk about it like it’s trivial and unimportant, and it can be – just like any other story. Any story can be well written and relevant, but genres such as fantasy and science fiction have another hurdle to overcome, and that’s creating a world you believe.
I remember people calling Avatar crap because they couldn’t buy into flying mountains. To others this might not seem like a valid criticism but I think on a certain level it is. Not because it’s there, but because it is the job of a fantasy or sci-fi writer to make you believe the unbelievable. If you don’t, you did something wrong. For example, lightsabers can’t exist, but people have no trouble buying into them in the context of Star Wars.
Personally I had no problem with the flying mountains in Avatar. I thought it was consistent with Cameron’s world and he succeeded just fine in making Pandora feel real. But it is a potential pitfall I think any genre writer needs to keep in mind.
Now, I just had a chance to see The Dark Crystal on the big screen, and I’m reminded that fantasy ain’t easy. Jim Henson and his team did a great job on their puppets and visuals. It’s a great looking world, creepy as heck for kids with layers of nastiness. It’s not The Muppet Show, and it’s really good.
While the ecosystem is very alive and imaginative, the rest of the world for me has a problem. It never feels like it’s a place that exists with any kind of population. The Skeksis are rulers of the world, but there’s nothing really for them to be ruling over. Just lots of wildlife and some Podlings hiding in a tree. Rules of the wild squirrels, fear them!
There was a Gelfling race that was wiped out, and we see one of their ruins, but it feels they were all in one city, and aside from that single ruin there is no sign there was ever a Gelfling kingdom. The Podlings are a tribal people that hide from the Skeksis, but again, there is little sense that there were ever that many of them. And as wonderful the wildlife scenes are, sometimes it feels like things are added “because the plot says so.”
I should point out my brother and I disagree greatly about the Dark Crystal, which is one of his top ten movies of all time. I can’t help but wonder if there is the same haze of nostalgia clouding his opinion of it as there is for me and Star Wars. He says my problem is I’ve got my geek nitpicking magnifying goggles on. Perhaps. But I’m of the opinion that a good writer has to.
What it boils down to for him is the mythic aspect of the story coming first. As long as the myth works and is consistent that’s all that matters. To me I need a myth to fit into a world that feels alive. There are exceptions, of course. If you’re recounting the tales of the Greek Gods, for example, everything can happen in an ethereal god-world no problem.
But if you’re telling the Iliad, despite all the god meddling and people with god blood in them involved, Troy needs to feel real. The Greek and Trojan armies and cultures need to feel real, not just two sets of green army men lined up on the beach. And to me the Dark Crystal needs to be in the latter category.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie. From a technical standpoint it’s just great, from a children’s story standpoint it’s good. It will be interesting to see what they do with the sequel that was announced this year. And compared to, say, Labyrinth, it’s a million times more internally consistent (of course the inconsistency was part of the point of that film). But compared to something like Harry Potter and it’s lacking in some key areas that could have made it great.
And of course there is one other reason I love this movie – Fizgig!
Is it just me or does Fizgig remind you of Billy Connolly… maybe Brian Blessed?