This article contains minor spoilers for the original The Dark Crystal(1986)movie
A Word on Nostalgia
I am four years old, visiting family friends in Boston. Hippies turned archeologists. Nice people but they don’t have kids and as such they don’t have anything to keep a child entertained. It’s 1986, long before the days of 24/7 cartoon channels on cable. Hell, before most people had cable. In those days children’s entertainment either existed in your imagination or in the televised hours between 6am and 9am.
And so the adults are looking for something to keep me entertained. Something to do so they can eat a meal that doesn’t contain the word “nuggets” and catch up with minimal interruptions. Now these folks dont have kids, but do have a copy of The Dark Crystal.
To this day I can still remember sitting on that orange and brown couch and getting lost in the world of Thra. I can still feel the sense of wonder at watching the terrifying Skeksis and the gentle Mystics. The sheer brilliance of Jen and Kira. The beguiling Aughra who seemed both a monster and a savior. I remember covering my face in terror and watching through parted fingers as fizzgig made his first appearance. The Dark Crystal is a movie that made an indelible mark on my brain that has never left. It is one of my all time favorite films.
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s I have grown accustomed to seeing my childhood dredged up, repackaged, and sold back to me. Sometimes, like Stranger Things or the new She-Ra, it’s brilliant. Most of the time – it isn’t. There is no point in getting upset about it, the line between art and business has always been fuzzy. But The Dark Crystal has a special place in my heart. So when Netflix announced they were making a prequel I was excited but cynical. I kept hearing all the right things, the casting, practical effects, the writers … even the Frouds were back in some capacity – it all sounded so good.
But then it finally happened. Netflix released the new series and I finally got a chance to see what had been building for so many years. Years of anticipation and trepidation building up to this moment, and now that I’ve seen it, I have to say….it’s bloody brilliant.
Spoiler Free Review
I’ll admit the first minute or so gave me some misgivings. The narration paralleled that of the movie, but at such a faster pace that I was unsure of how I felt about it. On the first viewing I thought it lacked some of the gravitas of the original. Paired with flashy SFX that could feel more at home in Marvel’s Doctor Strange I feared this whole thing was going to be a bit of a misfire. After rewatching it through the context of the bigger picture, I was dead wrong. It’s a great opening.
Almost right off the bat the show breaks free of much from the perceived lore of the movie, which was admittedly scarce. It immediately establishes a much deeper and richer sense of mythology. With archetypes smashed and the pacing altered, the show establishes reverence to the original but breaks new ground. Obviously the series had to do this. The original movie thrived on the scarce knowledge of the audience to create a sense of wonder.
Yet, in a world where nostalgia is quantified by profit margins, breaking free runs a risk of alienating fans. It would have been so easy for the creators to be timid and rely on creating hours of fan service. The result would have been a tedious trek down memory lane. Instead the team behind the show went whole hog and found something new buried inside a fantasy classic.
Despite his skill absolutely nothing in director Louis Leterrier’s resume screams “works well with puppets” or “quaint fantasy lover.” But, he knocks this fantasy tale out of the park. Leterrier and his team do an amazing balancing act with a cast this size and a story this big. No scene outstays its welcome, no character or plot device seems unnecessary, and every shot is brimming with wonder and intrigue. I am a fan of Leterrier’s work. Having seen every one of his films I can say with confidence he has out done himself here. There is some amazing camera work in Age of Resistance (especially in the latter half of the season.) And what could have easily been an awkward unwieldy beast of a tale, is presented by Leterrier in an “all killer no filler” style.
Writing a prequel is hard. The climax and resolution to your story has already been told. Even then you have to create compelling stories and ideas that fit into an established mold. No matter how good any other part of this production could be if the writing didn’t work, the show was going to be doomed. I can say I am a bigger fan of the Dark Crystal coming out of this than I was going in. Every detail, every plot point. easily enriches the original movie. The mythology is so compelling and engaging, it is just astounding. So often when an old property is revised by new hands, you can see where something doesn’t fit. It is almost as if every detail here was written down by Henson and Froud +30 years ago. I am now going to track down every tie in book by writer J.M. Lee and see just how deep this rabbit hole goes. Though he only wrote one episode, on the outset, it seems his contribution cannot be understated. I cannot emphasize enough how difficult a job this team of writers had and how spectacularly they rose to the occasion.
Practical vs CGI effects
To be blunt Age of Resistance is a near perfect melding between practical effects and CGI. You aren’t going to forget that you are looking at puppets but the whole show is flat out gorgeous. There are times when one stands out a bit more due to the contrast of the other, but it is instantly forgivable. Its like seeing the rods on Kermit the Frog’s hands. Even though you see how the trick is done, it doesn’t diminish any of the magic.
When Age of Resistance was first announced there was one name that immediately calmed most of my fears – Froud. Brian Froud was the designer on the original Dark Crystal along with his wife Wendy. Their son Toby has followed in the family footsteps. The Froud family has routinely put out some of the best fantasy imagery and concepts for 40 years. If anyone of them were to design so much as a gum wrapper, I would be first in line to but it (and I don’t even like gum) So knowing Toby Froud was working on this film instantly gave it a sense of legitimacy. Not because he shares his parent’s name but because he shares their skill. If there had ever been any doubt on that front, a single episode of Age of Resistance puts the nails in that coffin, kicks the spit and lowers it into the ground. On top of that it is clear that the crew spent a great deal of time analyzing Frouds work, it is an imitation of a style that can only be called a labor of love.
This article is already long enough as it is. As much as I want to gush over the puppeteers and the voice acting. – there simply isn’t time. We will do that in our spoiler filled break down of the series in the coming weeks. For now though suffice it to say – it’s all good. Very, very good.
Faces New and Old
As you would expect with a prequel we get lots of familiar faces. Yet we get to see them in a new light. We spend more time with them and get a much greater sense of who everyone is. Something the original movie lacked at times.
The Gelflings in the original were little more than archetypal fantasy creatures. Beautiful, in-tune with
nature, and infinitely heroic. They were hobbits and elves thrust into one singular creation. The series moves beyond that and gives us seven different Gelfling nations, each with their own cultures, norms, strengths and weaknesses. Gone is the simple good vs evil from the original movie. These complex and wonderfully rendered characters who will evoke a wide range of emotions from the audience. If you ever believed a puppet couldn’t make you absolutely furious or push you to the verge of tears, these Gelfling will prove you wrong.
Let’s face it, podlings were glorified Fraggles in the movie. They are either servants of the Skeksis or peace loving, party having, commune living hippies. The most they provide to the film is context. From one standpoint the podlings here play much the same role they did in the original, servants overlooked by their masters. Though, here their masters are often gelfling as well. This does a wonderful job of deconstructing the Gelfling from. The movies. Now, we see the heroes from the original possessing some of the failings of the villains.
The show retains the Podlings having their own language which work wonders for world building. By seeing the podlings and how they interact with the rest of the world provides some much detail that would have otherwise been delivered by exposition heavy dialogue. Often the podlings (and one in particular) steal the show when they are around.
Age of Resistance could have gone the Game of Thrones route and developed the story a little slower. We could have spent more time thinking the Skeksis were ugly but benevolent leaders. Instead the writers establish a conflict with the Skeksis need for power and immortality early on. By the first episode we see the depths they will go to maintain power. Manipulating and sacrificing others in order to cheat death has never been so fun to watch. Getting to really see the Skeksis as characters and to understand their perspective and culture beyond pantomime villandry is a real highlight of the series for me.
In the original Dark Crystal there is one scene that stands out above the rest. Augra is taken to the caste of the Skeksis. And it’s here that you start to get a real sense of her importance in the story. The Skeksis, these terrifying creatures, who show no compassion and kill with ease and glee, are frightened of her. And to the movies credit, we never know why. It makes her such a compelling character and gives us a sense of history between the secondary characters.
Age of Resistance took a massive risk by giving Aughra such a fleshed out background and prominent role in the story. But it is done with such a resounding success that it doesn’t diminish her intrigue in the slightest. This also presents some of the best voice acting in the show (of which there is plenty.) Billie Whitelaw played Aughra in the original movie. Sadly she passed away in 2014. Donna Kimball’s work is so eerily close, it is easy to forget it’s a different actress. This isn’t just a parody of another actor’s work either. Kimbal sings, emotes, and explores a character established 30 years prior. And as she does, she bridges that time gap seamlessly. It is phenomenal work.
There are several new things in Thra that we haven’t seen before. But they are mostly flora and fauna that have no bearing outside of enhancing that sense of wonder. Still, they are every bit as good as you would expect from the Froud family.
I don’t normally rate things with stars or numbers. I find it to be too subjective. But, what the heck, I am on a muppet induced high right now.
This show is an absolute triumph.
Recommended for: any one with a pulse. Stop wasting time on the internet and go watch it already.