Frank Oz once said that Jim Henson thought it was fine to scare children. He didn’t think it was healthy for them to feel safe when watching films. This is shown plainly in The Dark Crystal, an unsettling, formative experience for my childhood. I can still remember my horror at the emperor Skeksis crumbling into dust, the click-clack of the sinister Garthim, and the scene where an innocent Podling’s life force is sucked out of him. It’s a genuine cult fantasy, and remains Henson’s most complete film. The world building is phenomenal and it’s a great showcase for his boundless imagination. The problem is that the story itself isn’t all that original, or compelling. It’s a classic but not perfect.
The highly anticipated Netflix prequel, The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance, is larger in scale with a greater emphasis on story and character. We get more insight into the societies that make up the world of Thra, from the twisted evil Skeksis to the cute, fun loving Podlings. The storytelling is mature and well structured and all of the plot developments feel completely organic with very little in the way of filler. Everything is there for a reason.
The series is notable for paying due credit to the puppeteer performers as well as the voice cast. The collaborative performances really pay off, as the fusion of vocal and physical performances genuinely bring the characters to life. In terms of the voice actors, everyone integrates into the story perfectly, but the standouts are clearly the Skeksis. Simon Pegg deserves a special mention as the whimpering, manipulative Chamberlain. He emulates the character perfectly and is virtually unrecognisable in the role. Meanwhile the rest of the baddies – including Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, Benedict Wong and Awkwafina – have an absolute ball, clearly revelling in their characters’ grotesque villainy.
Other character highlights are the deranged Skeksis Heretic (Andy Samberg) the irascible sorceress Aughra (Donna Kimble) lovingly recreated, and finally the plucky, adorable Podling, Hup. The best character in the show by a mile, Hup is an absolute delight, and I would happily watch an entire series based on him.
The production design is faultless throughout, with some suitably epic cinematography and a truly beautiful score. The emphasis on practical effects makes the world feel grounded and tangibly real. It’s full of little flourishes that are essentially just the puppeteers showing off, including an extended sequence featuring two characters putting on an elaborate puppet show. This is essentially a puppet performing puppetry and, as an audience, you’re so immersed in the story and the fictional world that you don’t even think about how mad an idea that is until afterwards.
At it’s best, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance feels far less trippy than the film and more like a Game Of Thrones for a younger audience, although this does lead into my main issue, which is that I can’t really tell who this is aimed at. While the original film was creepy, this one pushes the boundaries of what is suitable for children, with scenes of torture, disfigurement and violence that are genuinely unpleasant. On the other hand, the puppets and the twee singing and dancing make it unlikely to draw in a new adult audience.
I’m not really a huge fantasy fan – for me, if a story works it works, regardless of the setting. Generally speaking though, sequences where characters sing in a made up fantasy language do tend to lose me, and Age Of Resistance features a few of these. It can sometimes feel a little twee and the repeated use of overtly fantasy terms like “the darkening” do grate a little. Also, apart from the wide eyed Deet, the design of the Gelflings, the heroes of the story, is far too basic, too wooden and generally inexpressive. It’s not a huge problem because the storytelling is so great, but it’s annoying when the characters you’re rooting for are the most unrealistic looking puppets, especially when contrasted with the incredibly lifelike movements and expressions of the Skeksis.
It’s a shame that people might be deterred by the inexpressive puppets and the self conscious fantasy elements because, overall, The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance is a triumph. The storytelling is great, the world-building intelligently laid out and both the vocal and physical performances are all pitch perfect. While a second season hasn’t been commissioned yet, I really hope we get one because this is the best tribute to Jim Henson‘s memory that we’ve had since The Muppet Christmas Carol.