'The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
A satisfying adventure.
8/30/2019

Director Louis Leterrier and The Jim Henson Company join forces with Netflix on an ambitious prequel to 'The Dark Crystal.'

Let me begin with the generational sacrilege: Jim Henson and Frank Oz's The Dark Crystal is the rare classic property that's completely iconic and yet completely improvable. Revisited after 37 years, it remains a dazzling visual landmark, but plagued by not-insignificant problems, none more galling than a pair of astonishingly dull heroes. Jen and Kira, the gelflings at the center of the movie's already thread-bare quest, are thinly written, meekly voiced and, in an ensemble of characters representing the pinnacle of puppeteering excellence, dead-eyed and wooden.

In that light, Netflix's 10-episode The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is verging on a best-case scenario. Augmented by some new digital technology, but still executed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the series is visually breathtaking — building on the wonderment of the movie, not bettering it — and when it comes to story and character, it's in all ways a smarter, funnier and more narratively thrilling enterprise. Whether you're watching for fulfilled nostalgia or current pleasure, this is a whimsical, fun and entertaining series.

Developed in this format by Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is set many years before the events of the movie and, completist though I may be, the movie is generally unnecessary to watching the series, not that the primer hurts.

Voiceover from Sigourney Weaver's Myth-Speaker sets the foundation: On the planet Thra, an alien race known as skeksis rule and have taken control of the planet's nourishing Crystal of Truth through a sleight of hand distraction of Thra's wild-eyed embodiment, Aughra (voiced by Donna Kimball). Something has gone wrong with the crystal, which isn't powering things the way it used to, and the skeksis are secretly using the crystal to remove and devour the essence of other lifeforms, starting with the peaceful gelfling, Thra's native civilized population. Add in The Darkening, a force poisoning Thra's other creatures, and bad stuff looms.

The gelfling live in seven matriarchal clans, each paying obeisance to the skeksis, right up until one gelfling, the Taron Egerton-voiced Rian, learns the truth and sets out on a quest. On simultaneous and parallel quests with similar goals are Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel), part of the underground-dwelling Grottan Clan and soon joined by optimistic podling Hup (Victor Yerrid), and Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy), daughter to the All-Maudra (Helena Bonham Carter) and sister to the compassionate Tavra (Caitriona Balfe) and the insecure Seladon (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Like the movie, the series is a pastiche of familiar fantasy Hero's Quest tropes, offering shades of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Wizard of Oz and more, sending our main characters from destination to destination with much more purpose and conviction than marked the mini gelfling migration in the movie. Though I'm not sure I ever got any holistic sense of Thra's size and geography, you get a real feel for locations like the Crystal Desert, the bustling gelfling metropolises of Stone-in-the-Wood and Ha'Rar and various catacombs and caves.

It's all wrapped around an easily digestible environmentalist message about the interconnectivity between a planet and its inhabitants and the cataclysm and imbalance that arises from treating your planet only in terms of resources to be consumed and not as a symbiotic stewardship. The message is sufficiently well-meaning and simplistic that you may find yourself looking to add layers and depth that probably aren't there, like trying to match contemporary politicians with the malevolent skeksis — boasting most overcomplicated names in their native tongue and instantly descriptive titles like The Emperor (Jason Isaacs), The Chamberlain (Simon Pegg), The General (Benedict Wong), The Scientist (Mark Hamill) and other creepy critters voiced by Awkwafina, Harvey Fierstein and Ralph Ineson. I'm not going to tell you that The Emperor is totally Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell just might be The Chamberlain, but if you want to interpret things that way, go for it.

Directing all 10 episodes, bringing consistent energy to the entire series and effectively redefining his entire career is Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans), whose achievement here is fairly remarkable. One need only to look at how stagey the movie sometimes is, how generally devoid of action, to be astounded at the mobility of Leterrier's camerawork, to be amazed at how he's able to navigate around any limitations in the puppets and the presence of their puppeteers. He's crafted a world that's wholly immersive, both from the perspective of the viewer and internally such that when there are moments of physical violence, there's a substance and weight to it.

Additional credit here to cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson, production designer Gavin Bocquet, composer Daniel Pemberton and, of course, creature/costume designer Brian Froud, without whom none of this would exist.

Age of Resistance is full of excitement and when it tries to be suspenseful or scary, it goes deeper than the nightmare fuel that Henson and Froud brought through the mere realization of vision in the movie. Some of their rough edges have been smoothed off, but the skeksis are still terrifying and, here, the way they wield their power is harrowing and viscerally realized. Most of this probably isn't for small kids, but that's especially true in a few tragic beats in the middle and some frightening stuff in the closing episodes.

I'll quibble that occasionally the backdrops and even the puppets themselves felt maybe a hair too polished, the result of a use of CG that's somewhere between "More than you think" and "Less than you might fear." There was some primitivism in the hand-drawn matte backdrops from the original that had value and maybe I'd want to dirty Age of Resistance up by 5 or 10 percent. But excess is already the name of the game in this series of 10 episodes that range from 45 minutes to full hours and rarely evince any consideration of restraint. You like fizzgigs, the wide-mouthed fuzzball from the movie? Have dozens! You think the humanoid podlings are adorable, wait until you've experienced dozens of them running around in various stages of undress resisting bathtime.

You know how when George Lucas went back and tampered with the original Star Wars trilogy and suddenly there wasn't a single frame that didn't have newly added CG creatures just wandering the streets or slithering around? Age of Resistance has a bit of that, though not without inspiration, since I would surely buy versions of three or four of the tertiary flora and fauna.

The excess extends to main characters, which number in the dozens and are driven by a vocal cast so exceptionally overqualified that Alicia Vikander pops up for a single episode in a thankless girlfriend role and you're just like, "Sure. Thanks for dropping by, Oscar winner Alicia Vikander." Egerton, Taylor-Joy and Emmanuel are all solidly earnest and much more expressive than their film predecessors. Like gelfling society, female characters have the best parts in this series, without it being Egerton's fault that Rian is consistently outshined. It's enough that the gelflings have personalities and project life now, not just blank, felt slates.

Isaacs is, as ever, effortlessly menacing and backed by a slew of skeksis actors — Pegg, Hamill, Andy Samberg — doing amusingly nasty variations on what could only be called "Frank Oz Muppet Voice." There are a few actors — Eddie Izzard, Awkwafina, Fierstein — whose voices produce minor distraction in the name of comic relief, though I'm not complaining about getting some real chuckles spread across these 10 hours.

No review of Age of Resistance should praise the voices and leave out the expert puppeteers, all having a blast getting this rare vehicle for the full depth of what the medium can do. Singling out puppeteers Neil Sterenberg, Beccy Henderson, Alice Dinnean, Warrick Brownlow-Pike, Louise Gold, Olly Taylor, Dave Chapman, Helena Smee and Kevin Clash constitutes only a surface acknowledgement.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance storms along at a breathless clip, and viewers will probably plow through some minor initial lags and a story that maybe peaks an episode or two too early. You won't be able to stop from watching, and then you'll definitely want to check out the feature-length documentary The Crystal Calls, designed and executed to make you appreciate the craftsmanship throughout (and perhaps over-appreciate Netflix's role in facilitating this craftsmanship).

Voice cast: Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jason Isaacs, Mark Hamill, Keegan-Michael Key, Simon Pegg, Donna Kimball, Caitriona Balfe, Alicia Vikander, Andy Samberg, Helena Bonham Carter
Developed by: Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews
Director/EP: Louis Leterrier
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)