In a world of glossy CG effects, there's something magical about The Dark Crystal. The physical puppets of Jim Henson's much-loved 1982 kids movie still have a realism and a spark that makes the film stand out even today. Netflix's new prequel series Age of Resistance recaptures the magic.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance started streaming Friday, Aug. 30, with all 10 episodes of season 1 available on Netflix. In a treat for fantasy fans left bereft by the end of Game of Thrones, Age of Resistance arrives on the same day as Amazon Prime Video's Carnival Row, another show tackling similar themes through a fantasy lens.
Age of Resistance stars a host of puppets created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, just like the original film. And a host of big names voice the fantasy creatures, from Taron Egerton and Anya Taylor-Joy to Helena Bonham Carter and Eddie Izzard. But the puppets are the true stars: the cast of exotic creatures and characters are a joy to watch as the puppets bring them to life enhanced with CGI that blends in perfectly. From the adorable podlings to the creepy Skeksis, the puppets have a chunky, physical realness that draws you into the show's expanded world.
The opening voiceover, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, reintroduces us to the colorful fantasy realm of the movie. The life-giving crystal has been corrupted by the venal Skeksis, who rule over various clans of innocent Gelflings. But things are about to change as a trio of young Gelflings set out to shake up things up.
The Gelflings have the same vaguely blank facial expressions as they did in the original, but the show does a good job of differentiating three main characters on three clear quests. However, just like the original film, the most fun comes from the cackling crow-like Skeksis. These shambling hunched-over dictators clinging to power by the tips of their talons are voiced by the likes of Keegan-Michael Key, Andy Samberg and Jason Isaacs, and their scheming and squabbling are deliciously entertaining. Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill and Awkwafina in particular really go for it with their voice acting.
Like the original movie, the Skeksis have their scary moments. But they're far from one-note villains: the Skeksis are motivated by greed, vanity and ego -- but most of all by fear. Their plotting is underpinned by desperate anxiety, and it makes them even more frightening opponents because of the lengths to which their fear will evidently drive them.
The original film established the Skeksis' role in the fate of the Gelflings. What makes Age of Resistance so interesting is that it examines the Gelfling role in their own downfall. We're shown a society where many Gelflings are happy to be ruled by the Skeksis as long as it keeps them top of the heap. Fittingly enough, they're led by a puppet queen. Yes, the ruling class have to pay a tithe to the Skeksis, but they get to lord it over the other Gelfling clans. Even in the fantasy world of flying Gelflings and magic crystals, racism, self-interest and fake news are major problems. So as well as entertaining younger viewers with amazing puppets and exciting adventures, the show invites them to ask questions about how society works and who benefits from keeping things the way they are.
Amazon's substantially more grown-up Carnival Row also examines society's flaws, but I'd argue Netflix's kid's show is a good deal less heavy-handed. This might seem like an inevitable comparison, but with its dynastic manoeuvring and fantasy society dealing with real problems, Age of Resistance feels like Game of Thrones with puppets.
That Game of Thrones comparison feels apt during Dark Crystal's darker moments. The original film is shot through with a deliciously sinister menace, and the new series maintains that atmosphere with the creepy Skeksis and various threatening creatures of the forest. It goes a bit further, however, including some intense scenes that might be a bit much for younger viewers.
In among these, the series perhaps undoes one of the best things about the movie: The original Dark Crystal features no fighting or killing. Unusually for a fantasy movie, the hero's quest doesn't involve fantasy weapons or learning to fight, focusing on the need to heal the crystal rather than destroy. But Age of Resistance introduces a warrior clan of Gelflings who launch into a number of swordfights. I watched the first five episodes, but judging by the trailers there's a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy battle coming up. Which is fine, but it's nice to have a break from war every now and again.
We've all seen a million fight scenes, but few are as well-made as the scenes in Age of Resistance where characters learn something instead of fighting. When faced with an ancient puzzle, for example, a Gelfling princess assumes she'll solve it by ranking the Gelfling clans in the order of their social position. And when that doesn't work, she begins to learn something about her view of the world. It's a neat little scene that allows Gelfling and audience to figure something out together.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance looks wonderful and its starry voice cast has something to say. In another world, in another time, this is an age of wonder.
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Originally published Aug. 22.