DVD Picks & Passes

Father Brown - Set 2 (1974) - Pick

The Dark Crystal (1982) - Pass

Labyrinth (1986) - Pass

This week, G. K. Chesterton’s beloved clerical detective is back on DVD new-release shelves with “Father Brown” — Set 2, which, together with “Father Brown” — Set 1 (released in January), collects all thirteen episodes of the 1974 British ATV television series starring Kenneth More.

Known to American viewers from PBS’s “Mystery!” series, the “Father Brown” series brings gratifying fidelity to its 50-minute adaptations of Chesterton’s stories, with dialogue often taken verbatim and liberties kept to a minimum. Among the six stories adapted in Set 2 are the favorites “The Arrow of Heaven” and “The Secret Garden.”

Production values and video quality are uneven but serviceable. More’s performance in the title role, while a bit twitchier and less matter-of-fact than Alec Guinness in the flawed 1954 film Father Brown (U.S. title: The Detective), captures the eccentric charm and practical common sense of the umbrella-toting cleric.

Also this week, two well-known 1980s fantasy family films starring creatures from Jim Henson’s Muppet workshop return to DVD with special editions. The first is The Dark Crystal, an ambitious high fantasy with Tolkienesque aspirations and a vague George Lucas vibe that’s part Star Wars mysticism, part Willow blandness.

Set in a mythic world populated entirely by fictional races, the film relates the quest of an elf-like “Gelfling” named Jen to “heal” a mighty crystal shattered a millennium ago, a catastrophe that left the world dark and blighted. Now the cruel, vulture-like “Skeksis” reign while the gentle, camel-faced “Mystics” live in exile. At the climax, when the crystal is restored, and the surviving Skeksis and Mystics are merged into luminous beings as the world is healed.

Though imaginatively ambitious, The Dark Crystal is a somewhat distant, uninvolving experience, with characters whose world and emotions never become real to the viewer, and an overarching mythology that seems too self-consciously contrived. The overt dualism of the climax, in which evil is not destroyed but merged with goodness in a yin–yang balance, is also problematic.

Ironically, George Lucas had nothing to do with The Dark Crystal, but he did executive produce this week’s other Muppet-filled fantasy, Labryinth. As The Dark Crystal is a would-be myth, Labryinth is a would-be fairy tale, with echoes of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

The story involves an immature young girl (15-year-old Jennifer Connelly) who unwittingly invites goblins to kidnap her baby brother, then embarks on a quest through a vast labyrinth to rescue him from the Goblin King (a flamboyant David Bowie).

Despite some imaginative visuals, especially the Escher-inspired omnidirectional castle at the finale, Labyrinth suffers from a distinct lack of charm, with weak characterization, haphazard plotting and a limp climax. Along with the likes of Willy Wonka and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Labyrinth is yet another reminder that magic of The Wizard of Oz is easy to copy but hard to replicate.

Content advisory  

Father Brown: Much breaking of laws and commandments, including murder, theft, and adultery. Teens and up. The Dark Crystal: Some mildly scary menace and imagery; vaguely dualistic implications. Not too frightening for kids. Labyrinth: Mildly intimidating imagery; some rude humor. Okay for most kids.