"Different people ask us about the Muppets and The Dark Crystal and they're so totally different," Jim Henson told a BBC interviewer in 1983, during an appearance with Dark Crystal co-director Frank Oz. "In my mind, I can't connect them at all. It's like you go out of one house and you walk over and you go into another house. It's like two totally different worlds."
Promoting the film, Henson, Oz, and Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz — who'd teamed with Henson after splitting with George Lucas — did their best to alert fans that The Dark Crystal would be a different sort of movie, but could any warning have been strong enough? Instead of Kermit and Miss Piggy frolicking, the fantasy film featured repellent monsters sucking the life from helpless creatures and other disturbing images. There was nothing whimsical or light about the film, which met with a cool reception when it hit U.S. theaters at the end of 1982.
But what made it off-putting to some viewers made it beguiling to others. Those drawn to its beautiful, dangerous fairy tale world populated by evil Skeksis, brave Gelfling, and other fantastical creatures turned it into a cult classic and kept its flame alive. Now that flame has flared into a prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, produced by the Jim Henson Company and airing on Netflix. Like the original, it's an extraordinary technical achievement filled with stunning images and remarkable puppet work. And, also like the original, it won't appeal to everyone. The series doubles down on the darkness and goes to disturbing places. (It occasionally seems to be trying to outdo Peter Jackson's dark-side-of-The Muppet Show midnight movie Meet the Feebles when it comes to scenes of puppets emitting bodily fluids.) Even those not turned off by touches like eyeball-devouring bugs might find their heads swimming from the series' complicated mythology. Age of Resistance sometimes plays like it ought to be watched with a reference book in one hand.
But for everyone else? Dig in. This is an ambitious undertaking that stays true to the visuals and lofty goals of the original film while reworking the world of that film into a new form. Where the original Dark Crystal played like a fairy tale, Age of Resistance takes its cues from high fantasy, filling out the faraway world of Thra with layers of lore and intrigue. It owes as much to George R.R. Martin as the Brothers Grimm.
Set many years before the events of The Dark Crystal, Age of Resistance finds Thra in a state of relative peace. The vulture-like, but apparently benevolent, Skeksis rule the land and the clans of elf-like Gelfling let them do the ruling. Everyone knows their place and no one seems to mind. Of course, it's all a lie. The Skeksis only look after themselves. And the deception is about to get worse for the Gelfling. In the first episode, the Skeksis' Scientist (voiced by Mark Hamill) discovers a way to extend Skeksi lives by draining the Gelfling of theirs, a horrific act witnessed by the previous happy-go-lucky Gelfling Rian (voiced by Taron Egerton), a castle guard who quickly finds himself on the run from the Skeksis.
Soon he's not alone in standing up to the grotesque overlords, since others have begun to awaken to the threat in their midst. These include the highborn Brea (voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy) and Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel), a member of an underground clan with no experience on the surface world. First separately, then working together, they uncover the secrets of the Skeksis and turn Thra against them before it's too late, a journey that will take them to seemingly every corner of Thra and its many strange inhabitants.
For all the ways the series expands on the world of The Dark Crystal, what's most immediately striking is how closely it resembles the original film. That's no doubt partly due to the involvement of the Henson family and to artist Brian Froud, the fantasy illustrator who contributed heavily to the look of the film. But it's also due to how true the series has stayed to Henson and Oz's puppets-first approach to creating the world. Age of Resistance uses CGI extremely sparingly, to the point where recognizable CGI splashes can be distracting when they do appear. Mostly, director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Incredible Hulk), who helms every episode, confines the action to what his puppeteers can accomplish.
That approach is not without limitations. Scenes of hand-to-hand combat, for instance, depend on some creative editing choices. But it also gives the series a tactile quality and the puppets' wondrous expressiveness creates an effect that no digital effect could replicate. That's to take nothing away from the well-chosen voice cast, which includes everyone from Awkwafina to Andy Samberg to Harvey Fierstein. (Simon Pegg's a particular stand-out as the Chamberlain, even if he is essentially imitating Barry Dennen's voice in the film.)
Henson and Oz set out to prove puppetry could be used to tell more serious stories with The Dark Crystal. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance expands on that project while using a fantasy world to echo real-world concerns. It doesn't take much squinting to see reflections of the 21st century in the exploitative ruling class of the Skeksis or the depletion of natural resources they use to keep control of Thra.
Age of Resistance is, in many respects, an extraordinary accomplishment. Which isn't to say it doesn't run into some problems along the way. The Skeksis make for chilling foes but also grow grating after scene after scene in which they do little but yell at each other. And, for as complicated as the plot grows, the emotions remain frustratingly simple. When two characters start to fall for each other late in the season, their connection seems to come out of nowhere and never feels grounded in real feelings. It's probably not impossible to generate sexual chemistry between puppets, but Age of Resistance has yet to figure out how.
The series shares its most frustrating problems with many other streaming-age shows that try to spin one long narrative over many installments. As with Netflix's Marvel series, there often doesn't seem to be enough story to fill out a whole season. It begins with propulsion and ends well, but the middle stretch finds the story traveling in circles too often, even as it keeps things lively by introducing new characters and concepts along the way (including a flying creature and a threat that calls back to Star Trek's Borg).
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance also ends without a resolution, setting up a second season that, should it happen, will have to work hard to top the visual achievements of this one. The level of ambition on display here suggests that everyone will be up to that task, however. And if the series can find ways to match its technical achievements with storytelling that remains as impressive from start to finish, well, who needs humans to populate fantasy worlds with puppets as incredible as these?
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance premieres Friday, Aug. 31 on Netflix.