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Though best known for creating the worldwide-beloved Muppets, master puppeteer Jim Henson has also earned a cult following over the decades for the less mainstream diversions in his career. Movies like Labyrinth (1986) and The Dark Crystal (1982) didn’t create a huge stir when they were initially released, but have since grown dedicated fanbases. Adolescents in particular have gravitated to the dark, weird sensibility exhibited in such work, quite at odds with the family-friendly attitude of the Muppets (although sharing a similarly quirky sense of humor). Since there’s absolutely no niche interest that the streaming services of today won’t try to exploit, Netflix has produced a new TV series acting as a prequel to The Dark Crystal. And yet The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is so much more than the cash-grab it could have been. In fact, it captures Henson’s sensibility better than almost anything made based on his creations since his untimely death in 1990.
The whole hook of The Dark Crystal was that its fantasy world involved no human actors whatsoever, but instead was fully realized with puppets and props built to their scale. The new 10-episode series adheres faithfully to this sensibility. In this day and age, it would be so easy to replicate the world of The Dark Crystal digitally. But while computers are used for landscape shots, removing puppeteers from frames, and some complex visuals, an incredible amount of the effects are done practically, with a cast of around 100 different puppets acting with real sets and objects. One gets the sense that, given the backing of Netflix and a wide creative leash, the Jim Henson Company has been able to cut loose in a way it has been kept from indulging in for some time. The puppet articulation and expressionism on display here are marvelous. This is the first post-Henson production that feels like it’s hit a point where Henson’s own craft would have evolved had he lived. These characters are molded and sewn, but they breathe and eat and spit and bleed. They feel alive. In one sequence that feels purely like showing off, characters put on their own puppet show, meaning the audience is watching puppets controlled by other puppets.
It helps that the show is working from one of the most unique, beautiful fantasy films ever made. Brian Froud, the concept artist for the original movie, returned to help expand on his own designs and maintain visual consistency. The world of Thra feels like its own entity, not trying to rip off the look of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, or any other franchise. If nothing else, it is consistently a total treat to look at, with the crew fabricating some delightful new creature or environment. Denizens of Thra include the adorable Gelflings, the intricately grotesque birdlike Skesis, and the horned sage Aughra (a puppet with an astounding level of subtlety in its expressions). My personal favorite is a stone automaton named Lore, who communicates like a record player, “talking” by touching a needle to etchings on a rotating arm.
The story, which takes place some decades before the events of the film, finds the Gelflings slowly realizing that the Skesis, who rule over them, are corrupting Thra itself through their dark magic and technology. Several different characters — warrior Rian, studious princess Brea, and kindly animal caretaker Deet (whom I would die to protect) — each lead their own subplot. As the title suggests, a rebellion brews against the Skesis, though it’s inhibited as much by the different Gelfling clans’ inability to cooperate as it is by the Skesis’ machinations.
For a show pitched mainly at older kids and families, Age of Resistance presents a surprisingly thought-out depiction of the dynamics of authoritarianism, noting how those in positions of leadership among the Gelflings are motivated to defend the Skesis to defend their own positions of privilege. It obviously simplifies much, but works as a preteen’s primer on the subject, which is nice in a time when vague Star Wars politics and empty Twitter hashtags threaten to drain all meaning out of the idea of “resistance.” The corruption of Thra, referred to as “the Darkening,” has obvious parallels with our own world’s imperiled environment due to the senseless consumption of a select few. In this framework, the ugly, decadent Skeksis are appropriate villains. (And brutal ones. The Dark Crystal has frightened untold numbers of unprepared children over the decades, and the show seeks to live up to that legacy, reveling in the nastiness of the Skesis and subjecting some very cute critters to some very upsetting fates.) The writing also captures the offbeat humor of classic Henson productions better than anything his company has made since Muppet Treasure Island. (“Can’t argue with a tree!” says one character cheerily, in a moment that makes sense in context.)
The series hits some narrative stumbling blocks familiar to Netflix shows, ultimately having more running time than it does story material. (Why every episode runs nearly an hour, I’ve no idea.) And while technological advancement has allowed the creators to move within this world and show it off in ways the makers of the original Dark Crystal couldn’t (by necessity, the film had a quite constrained camera), the show frequently feels over-directed, full of unnecessary sweeps and edits. Still, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance‘s impeccable production and endearing characters create a surprising amount of investment in its story about puppets. That full-throated commitment and imagination is a winning combination.
All episodes of the first season of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance will be released on Netflix August 30.