In the wake of HBO’s cultural phenomenon “Game of Thrones,” a huge swath of new fantasy series have been announced. Major properties such as “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Witcher” and “The Wheel of Time” have all been announced as new productions attempting to fill the vacuum left by “Thrones.” Amongst all these titans, the most surprising contender comes from Netflix in association with the Jim Henson Company.
Most audiences probably associate Henson with his most mainstream properties, including the likes of “The Muppet Show,” “Fraggle Rock” and “Sesame Street,” yet it is one of his lesser known properties that is receiving a revitalization.
Henson and frequent collaborator Frank Oz (the voice of Yoda in “Star Wars”) created the original film “The Dark Crystal” in 1982. The film is widely remembered as a source of nightmares for those who went to see it as children, with families expecting it to be closer in tone to Henson’s previous works. Despite this legacy, “The Dark Crystal” became a cult classic and remains popular on home video.
The new series on Netflix acts as a prequel to the 1982 film, providing context and backstory to the main conflict and world of the film. Viewers need not have any previous knowledge of the original film or its expanded lore to enjoy the show as any necessary information is provided within the show.
Set on the planet Thra, “Age of Resistance” follows the interlinked stories of three Gelflings, small elf-like beings who are ruled over by the villainous Skeksis. The Skeksis, a race of huge, immortal reptilian vulture creatures, control the Crystal of Truth which acts as the heart of Thra. Initially loyal to the Skeksis and believing them to be benevolent rulers, Gelflings soon learn the truth about their overlords and begin to plan a rebellion against them.
Directed by Louis Leterrier (“Now You See Me”), the series is deeply reverent of the 1982 film, paying homage to it whenever and wherever possible. It is especially aided in this regard by the return of Brian Froud, the artist who designed the characters and world of Thra for the film.
The voice cast for the show is filled with major Hollywood stars, including Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill (“Star Wars”), Taron Edgerton (“Rocketman”), Helena Bonham Carter (“Harry Potter”), Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”), Keegan-Michael Key (“Key and Peele”), Simon Pegg (“Hot Fuzz”), Andy Samberg (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”). All of them give stellar voice performances, breathing life into characters made of fabric, latex and foam.
The series’ main strength lies in its incredible visuals. Both the characters and world of Thra are achieved through a seamless mixture of puppetry and CGI, presenting viewers with one of the most fully realized fantasy worlds ever brought to the screen. While the 1982 film also boasts beautiful cinematography and breathtaking puppets, the available technology of the time limited what Henson and Oz were able to achieve. Now, with the major advances in digital technology that have occurred in the past few decades, the series is able to capture moments and images that could have only been dreamt of in the 1980s.
Despite the integration of digital effects, the series never places too much reliance on this technology, staying true to the legacy of the original by keeping the focus on the ornate hand-crafted sets and hand-operated creature puppets. The Skeksis remain the most visually spectacular creatures, maintaining a balance between awe and terror in their designs.
The Gelflings now look better than ever with more detailed skin textures and facial movements, yet the limitations of the puppet medium prevent them from being completely emotive. This mainly lies in the series’ high degree of fidelity to the source material, as Henson’s initial design was always teetering dangerously above the uncanny valley. The most successful characterizations come from the more fantastically designed creatures, such as the Skeksis, Mystics and Podlings. Their lack of relatable human facial features allows the audience to suspend their disbelief enough to accept them as living beings (regardless of how strange they appear).
Keeping most of the same creatures and designs from the original film, the series still gives new additions to the world of Thra which only serve to better flesh out the world and perfectly match the previously established visual sense. Some of the most memorable of these additions are the carriage house of the Skeksis, the Gelfling civilizations of Ha’rar and Grot, and a massive flying stingray-like creature which acts as a sort of flying transportation to the characters.
With so many elements of the series worthy of praise, the story is surprisingly one of its more unremarkable aspects. Despite a fairly strong first half, the season becomes fairly predictable later on, relying on mostly recycled tropes of the fantasy genre. Certain scenes in the latter half feel very repetitive and recycled from earlier episodes right down to the reuse of dialogue. Still, the season ended on a fascinating note and left me interested in seeing how the story will progress in future seasons.
Clunky dialogue and inconsistent tone occasionally become problems for the series as well. The original film also suffered from these issues, leading to some uneven characterization and jarring tonal shifts. While a majority of the season is fairly safe for its intended family audience, there are some moments (especially in the season finale) which may be seen as too scary or intense for younger viewers (even prompting a certain level of shock from me).
Still, the inclusion of these darker elements of the series stays true to Henson’s philosophy from the original film that kids should not be totally shielded from frightening or uncomfortable content. That is probably the reason that, despite being slightly traumatized by it, many of the people who saw the film as children now love it and have passed it on for younger generations to enjoy.
Due to the weaknesses in the story the series never, in my opinion, reaches the heights of being truly great. Despite this, I still enjoyed it and found myself driven to watch each episode to see what would happen next. I will definitely watch the next season when it is released (whenever that may be) and look forward to seeing more with this world and these characters. This show really is a gem, presenting a unique, original world through a medium which is rarely seen by modern audiences. If you are craving a new fantasy series to latch onto now that “Game of Thrones” is finally over, head over to Netflix and give this one a try.
My rating for Season One of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance 3.5 / 5 Stars
Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.