Return to Jim Henson’s world of gelflings and skeksis in this gorgeous looking prequel from Netflix.
“Another world, another time, in the age of wonder.”
Thus begins Jim Henson’s original 1982 cult film The Dark Crystal. Here now in 2019, it seems we really are living in an age of wonder, an age where Netflix is happy to drop a large pile of cash on a ten-hour prequel to an almost forty-year old puppet movie. I imagine this slightly risky decision was not taken lightly by the executives at Netflix and it is to their credit that they have produced an astoundingly beautiful love letter to the original film.
Set an indiscriminate number of years (or trines, to use the gelfling term) before the movie, Age of Resistance massively expands upon the world of Thra and its myriads of inhabitants. The main difference being of course that in the original movie all the gelflings were long dead, except for our two brave heroes Jen and Kira, and that the land had been blighted and ravaged. The Dark Crystal followed their quest to defeat the evil skeksis, heal the crystal and return balance to the world. Age of Resistance gives us a look at a time when Thra was thriving with seven gelfling clans calling it home and living in harmony with the skeksis lords who are the caretakers of the titular crystal.
Things, of course, do not stay harmonious for long. We soon discover the skeksis haven’t exactly been taking great care of the crystal and have actually triggered the Darkening, a sort of infection that is spreading itself throughout the land. What follows is an exciting adventure to unite the gelfling clans against the skeksis and stop the Darkening before it consumes all of Thra. Obviously if you’ve seen the original film it won’t be a massive spoiler to know that things don’t always go the gelfling’s way.
Age of Resistance’s journey to the small screen has been a convoluted one. At one point a CGI sequel was planned from animation legend Genndy Tartakovsky, of Samurai Jack fame. For a while the franchise was then in the hands of Australia’s Spierig Brothers, directors of Daybreakers and Predestination. I believe the idea at the time was to use puppets against CGI backgrounds. The story, also a sequel, was to follow a fire sprite that lives deep at the world’s core and surfaces to steal the crystal’s power in order to reignite the dwindling energies below. This story was eventually published as a twelve issue comic book series.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has finally come to fruition under the guidance of Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa and Louis Leterrier, director of such films as The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans. Eschewing a mixed approach and making the decision to follow the original films all puppet philosophy, pays off in spades. The artistry on display is really quite breathtaking. Age of Resistance is one of the best looking television shows in a long time.
Original The Dark Crystal designer Brian Froud, who was also behind the look of Labyrinth, returns to ensure every corner of every frame is absolutely filled with detail. Large scale sets are utilised and when combined with the incredible puppetry of the Henson studios the result is utterly unlike anything else. Aughra’s observatory is painstakingly recreated from the original as is the crystal chamber inhabited by the skeksis. CGI is utilised in some places, filling in exterior backgrounds and also subtly used to enhance puppet faces. The tongues of the skeksis are also animated bringing more life to their vulture like countenances.
Netflix has assembled a voice cast like no other. The opening narration to the very first episode is delivered by Sigourney Weaver. The gelfling hero Rian is voiced by Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy is Brea and Nathalie Emmanuel, fresh from Game of Thrones, provides the voice of Deet. Leading the skeksis side is Jason Isaacs as the Emperor. He’s then ably assisted by the legendary Mark Hamill, Benedict Wong, Keegan-Michael Key and Awkwafina to name but a few. Simon Pegg does an admirable job as the Chamberlain, bringing all the grovelling smarm back from the original film. Special mention must also go to Andy Samberg as the Heretic, a skeksis who has been left to his own devices for a while and may have gone slightly crazy. With support from Toby Jones, Natalie Dormer, Lena Headey and Helena Bonham-Carter, the amount of Hollywood A listers is almost endless. Everyone plays their role perfectly, with no one seemingly miscast. Obviously the voice work would be nothing without the magnificent work of the puppeteers who mange to bring such nuance and emotion to the performances.
A slight problem with the original movie was that the skeksis were much more interesting characters than the gelfling heroes. Age of Resistance does go some way to alleviate this with a host of different gelfling personalities on display. We get to meet gelflings from all the seven different clans and they all have a unique look and persona. It is slightly disappointing that Rian, one of the show’s main leads, is also one of the least interesting geflings shown. He isn’t bad by any means and obviously he is the “everyman” character that acts as the audience’s surrogate. He just seems to have a slightly dull stoicism especially when juxtaposed against his best friend Gurjin who has personality to spare.
Two of the best new characters are undeniably Deet and her protector, the podling Hup. Deet is from the Grottan clan which lives in underground caves. When she leaves her subterranean home to venture to the gelfling capital of Ha’rar, her eyes are opened to a whole new world. Puppeteer Beccy Henderson and voice actress Nathalie Emmanuel do a fantastic job of portraying Deet’s innocence and curiosity to everything and everyone around her. Her likability and charm make her far and away one of the most compelling characters, especially when coupled with her unlikely ally Hup. He’s a podling who wants to be a paladin and becomes Deet’s protector even though he is armed solely with a wooden spoon. The pair provide the real heart to the show and are a joy to watch.
Another absolute standout is the Heretic, voiced by Andy Samberg, a skeksis who has been banished from the castle of the Crystal. He lives out in the desert with only his mystic counterpart as company. The nature of duality and balance is once again featured heavily in Age of Resistance. Just like the film, the skeksis and mystics were formed when they split from their original form, the urSkeks. Every skeksis has a mystic twin, what happens to one affects the other. skekGra the Heretic and his twin urGoh are waiting in the desert and have created a surprise for their gelfling visitors. This surprise is one of the show’s most enjoyable moments. Everything gets a bit meta as the puppets put on a puppet show for the other puppets. It is as mad as it sounds and is an absolute highlight of the season.
Much like the Brothers Grimm, Jim Henson always said that children’s stories should be a little frightening. This is evident to anyone whose childhood was scarred by scenes of the skeksis draining podlings of their essence or the garthim warriors wreaking havoc. Age of Resistance is no exception and is definitely worth checking out first if you’ve got little ones you want to share it with. The essence draining scenes are even more intense this time round and there is a scene where skekTek the Scientist is punished with a peeper beetle which will have kids peering through their fingers. Let’s just say the beetle has a penchant for eyeballs.
People with arachnophobia will also be pleased to see the Ascendancy, an army of giant spider like creatures that will scuttle into their nightmares. When they communicate they come together and form faces very similar to the helping hands in Labyrinth, disturbing images for sure. There are also some good gross out moments from the skeksis with a lot of pustules being burst. Also their eating habits are just as disgusting as they were in the original. On a slightly bizarre note, and not something I ever thought I’d write, we discover that skeksis appear to have three penises. In a particularly odd scene one of them is urinating up a wall and then several more streams appear. It’s truly an anarchic muppet-like moment.
The show does suffer a little from prequel-itis. Ultimately we know that eventually all the gelflings except two are killed and the skeksis rule over Thra until the Crystal is made whole. This does lend a slight melancholic feel to the ending of the season although ultimately there are enough highlights to leave the viewer with a sense of triumph. If there are future seasons I expect things will get a lot darker as we close in on the movie’s timeline.
Anyone who has read the young adult novels by J. M. Lee will also get feelings of deja vu as the series uses most of his world building to base its story on. Characters such as Rian and Gurjin appear in the books and the whole idea of the seven gelfling clans is lifted straight from them too. Events tend to happen in a similar fashion but the show definitely does its own thing. J. M. Lee also acts as a writer on the show and appears to only have loosely adapted his source material. One nice touch carried over from the novels is that the gelflings are a matriarchal society with each clan ruled by a Maudra or mother. The All-Maudra ultimately rules over all the clans combined. Another understated piece of societal reflection is that Deet mentions she has two fathers. It’s not made into a big thing and is obviously just a normal part of gelfling society.
At times the show doesn’t quite live up to its epic nature. The Lord of the Rings is often lampooned for being a movie about walking but Age of Resistance sometimes feels the opposite. Characters seem to travel supposedly great distances pretty quickly and easily which makes Thra feel quite small. I understand that within the limited timespan of the series and with the budget constraints, this is unavoidable. There are nice aerial shots of lush forests and mountain ranges that do go some way to combat this.
The producers also wisely decided to concentrate on just a few of the gelfling clans. I suspect trying to cram all of them into one season would have left the show feeling overly busy. It would be nice to see some of the other clans such as the swamp dwelling Drenchen explored in further seasons. Also the desert nomad clan of the Dousan are some of the most interesting looking characters we see and would be great additions to the main cast.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is an absolute labour of love. You can instantly see the hard work of hundreds of artists and performers on the screen. It is to his credit that Louis Letterier directed every single episode and didn’t just hand the reins over to someone else after the pilot. His love for the source material is obvious and I’ve no doubt Jim Henson would be extremely proud of what he and Netflix have created.
Incidentally there is also a feature length documentary about the creation of the series on Netflix. It is a fantastic insight into the process of creating such a handmade and beautiful show. If, like me, you are rapidly approaching middle age you will suddenly feel a lot older when you discover that Brian Froud’s son Toby who is the main creature designer also played the baby in Labyrinth. He certainly does remind me of the babe…