Critic's Notebook: Baby Yoda, 'The Dark Crystal' and the Need for Puppetry in the Age of CGI

Courtesy of Disney+
'The Mandalorian'

In an entertainment landscape riddled with mediocre CGI, the lo-fi enchantment of practical effects bring 'The Mandalorian' and 'The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance' to life.

As always, the existential wisdom of Werner Herzog prevails. “You are cowards,” the director castigated on set of The Mandalorian, upon realizing the producers intended to shoot some scenes without the Baby Yoda puppet in case they decided to go full CGI with the character. “Leave it."

Herzog, who guest-starred on a few episodes of the Disney+ Star Wars spinoff series, was one of Baby Yoda's earliest champions. And indeed, Baby Yoda — a colloquial epithet referring to the mysterious alien toddler merely known as "The Child" in the script — was designed for maximum neoteny. The gigantic saucer-like dilated eyes; the tiny button nose; a head that takes up nearly half his body mass; the hilariously oversized brown coat; the peach fuzzy hairs tufted around his head; and the pièce de résistance of his custardy little green face: that minuscule line of a mouth that could curve or stiffen in an instant and erupt a thousand ancient nurturing instincts in any viewer. (He's the only thing my normally stoic husband has ever sincerely described as "cute.") Heck, there may very well be a micro generation of Baby Yoda babies about eight months from now, thanks to this frog-nomming, lever-pulling, bone-broth-sipping little scamp.

And all because Jon Favreau and company finally recognized that rubber-and-fabric practical effects will almost always have a greater emotional impact than plasticky digital ones.

The recent success of The Mandalorian, thanks to the adorable face that launched a thousand memes, and Netflix's fantasy-adventure epic The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, recently nominated for a WGA Award and a Critic's Choice Award, prove that we still need puppetry and mechanical effects in the age of CGI. Entertainment is teeming with digital FX — some spectacular, some not — but the magic of these shows is all in their lo-fi beauty and visible textures. (Both series employ sophisticated hybrid techniques to blend puppetry and computer graphics, and in some Mandalorian scenes, there is no Baby Yoda puppet at all.) However, if Baby Yoda were entirely 3D animation, he wouldn't have become an icon the minute we laid our eyes on him. And Age of Resistance would be just another bright, empty fantasy without a spark of tactile pleasure. This isn't a Luddite's demand to end all computer-generated imagery, but a call to return to a cinematic art form pioneered by filmmaking legends like Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Chris Walas.

No disrespect intended to the talented artists and animators who bring computer graphics to life, but CGI should be used to enhance, not replace, the unvarnished wonders of animatronics, prosthetics and puppetry. One of the reasons classic films like E.T., Babe, Gremlins, Alien and Jurassic Park continue to endure is due to the sensorial enchantment of their central creatures: the curious eyes that connect you to a fluffy or rubbery new friend, the alarming jawlines lined with teeth that could slice you to shreds. These pics imagine verisimilitude where the very concept is not possible in a real world devoid of aliens, talking pigs, gremlins and dinosaurs. Imagine if David Cronenberg's The Fly or an American Werewolf in London were remade today — no doubt the animated special effects would neuter any deliciously revolting, adrenaline-pumping shock of gore and body horror. It's why the wholesome but tactile brilliance of Disney theme parks will forever outstrip any thrill-inducing 3D simulation at Universal Studios.

2019 was the year CGI broke us: The creepy dead eyes of Alita: Battle Angel; the stunning but soulless photorealistic fauna of the Lion King remake; the sludgy fairy blitz of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil; the distractingly uncanny valley of de-aged veteran actors in Gemini Man and The Irishman; the eerily sexualized initial design of Sonic the Hedgehog in the trailer for the eponymous 2020 film; and worst of all, the terrifying Island of Doctor Moreau-style human-feline chimeras of Cats. These visuals gave us full-body cringe, blasting us in the face with shallow images that don't look real enough or fake enough to transport us to other realms. This feeling will only continue to rot in years to come when we face the oncoming CGI singularity: a hollow facsimile of James Dean is set to "star" in an upcoming Vietnam flick 64 years after his death. Yuck and no thanks.

Compare this innate repulsion to the textural joy of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which thrives on a candy-colored paradise of reach-out-and-touch-it felt, fiber and foam. The brilliance of this sequel to Jim Henson and Frank Oz's 1982 dark fantasy epic relies on the advanced expressiveness of the Gelflings' humanoid faces and the vast formidability of the Skeksis' reptilian forms, which go far beyond the scope of the original film. Like Sky 1's late-great 2013 family sitcom Yonderland, an inventive Labyrinth-inspired comedy brimming with derpy fluffballs and priggish elves, the show is at once gorgeous and grotesque thanks to its buoyant medley of puppets.

Frankly, I don't always want my entertainment to look effortless. Instead, I want to stand in awe of these feats of design: painstakingly crafted miniature worlds, fleshy marionettes that fire arrows, extraterrestrial tots that beg you to scoop them up and kiss them on the forehead. I want to shout, "How the hell did they do that?!"

Puppetry reminds us we're fallible. Practical effects are imperfect and vulnerable; they expose the seams of creation openly and proudly. It takes human hands to sculpt a rubber face, to sew feathers on a baroque gown, to pull the rods on a little body and make it smile. Animatronics bring warmth and vibrancy. It doesn't matter if you can enliven every follicle on an animated creature's head if you cannot detect light in their eyes.

There's no question that many sensational three-dimensional landscapes do envelop us — Black Panther, Jungle Book, Avatar, to name a few. But why restrict yourself to only playing shadow puppets in Plato's Cave when you could also bask in a fabricated world beyond imagination?