Midway through the first season of “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” our elf-like heroes receive vital insight about their quest courtesy from a pair of wise hosts: “The key you seek is the answer to all of our travails,” one assures them, “brought to life by that most ancient and sacred of arts…”
This cues the other to raise his hands, wiggle his fingers, and finish his partner's sentence with, “Puppetry!” And the heroes roll their eyes and loudly groan.
“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” is dappled with such intentionally placed punchlines that wink at the audience and break the fourth wall even though its characters remain well-entrenched in another world, another time, and in the age of wonder. These touches of humor may be intended to blow raspberries at long-ago reviews of Jim Henson’s 1982 movie, many of which penalized Henson’s creation for failing to channel the signature lightheartedness of The Muppets franchise.
Hindsight and the profound affection of those of us who loved “The Dark Crystal" and saw the wonder for what it was redeemed Henson’s vision as something far ahead of its time. Back then, however, critics slammed “The Dark Crystal” for being derivative of J.R.R. Tolkien’s monomyth template. They couldn’t have known that many modern popular fantasies following in its wake would do that, too.
Also bear in mind that even the most highly respected critics are but humans whose tastes are formed at an early age by very specific works. Take Roger Ebert, who reportedly cited the sight of Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle in “The Muppet Movie” as “one of the great moments in cinema,” as an example of this. Ebert gave “The Dark Crystal” a mixed-to-negative review. In contrast, here’s what Ebert said about another movie that opened in 1982:
Not since Bambi's mother was killed has there been a cannier movie for kids than "Conan the Barbarian." It's not supposed to be just a kids' movie, of course, and I imagine a lot of other moviegoers will like it. I liked a lot of it myself, and with me, a few broadswords and leather jerkins go a long way.
Except when the broadswords are being wielded by Skeksis, the shriveled, vulture-like villains of Henson’s Thra.
In 1982 nobody had seen anything like the Skeksis, or the wise, painfully slow Mystics, or any serious film completely inhabited by beings shaped from man-made materials and animated by puppeteers. Yet somehow, a movie whose hero opines that what is best in life is "to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women" is estimated to be canny preadolescent entertainment, while "The Dark Crystal" was considered a flop.
What seemed to confuse Ebert and his contemporaries was that, in their estimation, puppets are kid’s stuff. “The Dark Crystal” is not outwardly child-friendly, nor was it overly concerned with narrative complexity.
If you’ve seen the movie — since it’s running on Netflix, you should — then you know that the quest embarked upon by the heroic Gelfling Jen and Kira, the last of their elf-like kind, is more or less a straight line. You also know the resistance ignited in this new prequel series does not end happily.
“Age of Resistance” drops on Netflix Friday, and it comes to us in an era where puppets appear in all kinds of films, thanks to Henson's legacy. Better still, its writers add several societal branches and geographic locales onto Henson’s relatively simple narrative, and the result is extraordinary.
But it nevertheless raises the question of who, exactly, is this story's target audience. The answer may seem obvious except for, well . . . puppetry.
“Age of Resistance,” set in a time long before the events of “The Dark Crystal,” follows a trio of Gelfling hailing from separate and distinct tribes, each of whom starts out on separate missions but, owing to a looming crisis, joins forces to find out what’s happening to the Crystal of Truth, the manifestation of Thra’s balance.
This is no small undertaking for Rian (voiced by Taron Egerton), Brea (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy) and Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel) — an outcast, a renegade and an emissary, in that order. When Rian witnesses a horrific act that presages a dire threat for all his kind, he becomes a hunted fugitive.
At this point in “The Dark Crystal” mythology, the Gelfling still pay to homage to the Skeksis, parasitic beings purporting to be the keepers of the Crystal of Truth, out of respect to Aughra (Donna Kimball), the ancient wise-woman originally entrusted with its care. Aughra was lured away from her responsibilities by the Skeksis, and is only somewhat in contact with the reclusive Mystics, with whom the Skeksis have a connection. But when she encounters Rian, Brea and Deet, she refocuses on the survival of Thra and the Crystal.
Elements of “Age of Resistance” are informed by J.M. Lee’s prequel novels, although showrunners Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews (with the help of a prologue narrated by Sigourney Weaver) take care to establish their own vision of the seven matriarchal Gelfling clans, loosely allied but governed by social hierarchy and afflicted by common bigotry.
Fealty to these lords is not universally passionate. Brea, the bookish youngest princess of the ruling tribe, is skeptical about everything, while Deet hails from an underground clan known as the Grottan, viewed as the lowest of the Gelfling tribes and one that gives little thought to the surface world, including the Skeksis. They're esteemed only slightly more than the world's other main class of humanoids, the potato-like Podlings.
Rian’s status is somewhere in the middle, a member of the respected warrior class charged with protecting the Skeksis and the son of the palace guard’s captain (Mark Strong). This makes his outlaw branding especially tragic because foremost among those disinclined to believe in Rian is his loyal father.
To say anything about the incidents that incite Deet’s and Brea’s quests would spoil the viewing experience, but it’s sufficient to say each has a role to play in this urgent mission to stave off the end of existence itself.
Building an entire elaborate world from what was previously described in outline form takes substantial effort on the part of those tasked with the physical creation of it, meticulous attention to the detail by those writing it, and deserves the viewer’s appreciation for the effort and patience in traveling it.
“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” is a technical marvel, a vividly alive place that shows evidence of the heart and soul the writers, production designers and puppeteers poured into ensuring Jim Henson’s vision is realized correctly and honorably.
Clearly Netflix spared no expense in making Thra sigh and sing as we travel along with Rian, Deet and Brea — and a brave Podling called Hup (Victor Yerrid), who aspires to be a knight and joins along the way. Director Louis Leterrier lights and films these episodes to flawless perfection, and pioneering creature designer Brian Froud works even more magic here than he did in the movie, owing to the sheer number of puppets required to fill out the set.
Accordingly, the voice cast is A-grade. Out of the three main characters, Emmanuel’s skill makes Deet a break-out character, closely matched by Taylor-Joy. They have a high bar to clear, what with Mark Hamill stepping into the role of The Scientist alongside Awkwafina’s brash The Collector and Simon Pegg nailing The Chamberlain’s unctuous whimper. Frank Oz, who co-directed the 1982 film, may not be involved with the Netflix series, but the extraordinary work on the voice cast’s part more than pays him homage. And who couldn’t get behind Lena Headey as a Gelfling warrior queen, or Helena Bonham Carter playing Brea’s mother, the All-Maudra?
Despite touches of humor, “Age of Resistance” is very much a serious story — one quietly but definitively infused with familiar references to our own broken political system, but mostly intended to flesh out the world into which Henson could only allow us to peer into for a scant 90 minutes some 37 years ago.
The title itself tips its hand: Thra is a mirror for what ails our own social and political systems, and in case that escapes us, a Gelfling points out that the hierarchal structure is a tool the Skeksis exploit to remain in power while the planet’s other beings squabble over scraps.
Add in the story’s consciously environmental message (made all the much more urgent by headlines about the Amazon’s burning rainforests) and its portrayal of the Skeksis' employment of disinformation campaigns, toxic energy sources and racism to set their nefarious endgame in motion, and this other world suddenly seems fairly similar to our reality.
Resistance, the script tells us, is a time of testing. Some of that unintentionally tests the audience, however. Others have observed that Henson was far more concerned about capturing a sense of wonder than emphasizing plot, and this also plagues “Age of Resistance” to a degree. Filling 10 hours is always challenging, but this narrative is dense to the point that we barely spend time with three out of the seven tribes, and it sacrifices dramatic tension to immerse us in Thra’s varied cultures.
But there’s also the context of our times to consider. Where critics dinged “The Dark Crystal” for daring to channel Tolkien, we’re living in a post-“Game of Thrones,” post-Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies era. Fantasy is mainstream and inviting to all ages, and with that comes the expectation of a certain level of sword-and-sorcery spectacle enabled by CGI.
Leterrier is devoted to the minimal use of visual effects to show everything these puppets can do – and they do show much more emotional nuance than Jen and Kira did. Henson did not put blades in the hands of his two heroes, however, and when you see the Gelfling engage in hand-to-hand combat in “Age of Resistance,” you’ll understand why.
Credible action scenes require some level of physical display, by way of computer generated effects or, as Henson and Oz did in 1982, small costumed humans filmed at a distance whenever Jen and Kira were required to run, climb hills or do anything that showed their feet in action. Puppets, even at their most advanced, have physical limitations.
It’s fair to assume the audience will understand this, but it’s also reasonable to notice that these moments risk waking us up from the dream-state of wonder in which the producers seek to place us. Even taking all of that into consideration, other concerns remain.
When someone recently asked me whether “Age of Resistance” was good, I could only answer with a series of questions: Who will be watching? Is that person easily frightened by scary-looking characters? How do you feel about oozing snot and dripping pustules? Are you OK with brutal, gory puppet-on-puppet violence? These are all real concerns.
Everything comes back that in-joke: Even the creators of this arrestingly gorgeous, meticulously artistic 10-episode epic rendered entirely with puppets, all puppets, nothing but puppets, so help you Aughra, acknowledge that it isn't going to be everyone's cup of essence.
On the other hand, by the time you get to that particular scene, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” has seduced you thoroughly enough to make you want to see the story through to its finale. Even then, however — and I say this as someone loved this story since I first laid eyes on it — don't be surprised if that urge to complete this journey may be less out of passion than appreciation for its existence.
Nevertheless, neither should you be perplexed by a gnawing desire for a second season you may harbor. There is much to be learned about this expansive vision of Thra, and even accounting for its shortcomings, its gargantuan effort merits the reward of more time.