Move over, “Game of Thrones.” What’s taking so long, “Lord of the Rings”? Netflix has brought “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” to TV, and it’s the bewitching and immersive experience that high fantasy fans have been waiting for.
Jim Henson and Frank Oz first performed alchemy in 1982 with the dark fantasy film “The Dark Crystal,” which gained a cult following in the ensuing 37 years. Now, the spell has been handed down to a new group of practitioners who’ve expanded and even improved upon the original. “Age of Resistance” transforms pointy-faced Gelflings into dauntless, epic heroes and creates a world that thrums with so much life that viewers will also hear the song of Thra themselves. Oh, what a time to be alive and a puppet!
Drawing upon “Dark Crystal” research texts, creation myth short stories, and YA prequel novels, co-executive producers Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach developed a story set sometime before the events of the film. In the prequel, seven distinct clans of the elf-like Gelflings tolerate each other while bowing down to the long-lived vulture-like Skeksis who rule as the keepers of the Crystal of Truth, which is the planet of Thra’s beating heart. When a few Gelflings uncover the Skeksis’ lies and realize the horrifying consequences, they must try to unite the warring clans to rise up against their manipulative overlords.
Just in case it wasn’t clear before, this truly is high fantasy that takes place in an entirely different world from our own, with nary a human in sight. The textural quality of the puppets themselves also add to this otherworldly atmosphere. Although a short adjustment period is required to accept these fey puppets as the protagonists in the series, in short order viewers will find themselves charmed by the gentle and big-eyed cave dweller Deet and outraged by the Princess Seladon.
More complicated are the feelings evoked by the evil Skeksis, selfish creatures out of nightmares with grating voices and violent tendencies. While actors like Nathalie Emmanuel, Taron Egerton, and Anya Taylor-Joy give sweet and lively performances to the Gelflings, it’s the voice actors for the Skeksis who are clearly having a ball. Mark Hamill as the whiny Scientist is still recognizable, but one would have to listen closely to peg Andy Samberg as the jovial Heretic or Awkwafina as the greedy Collector.
The series is a mind-boggling and stunning achievement in craftsmanship. The 84 practical sets alone are meticulously wrought to mimic bioluminescent caves, dank dungeons, lush forests, or airy throne rooms. Each of these sets are then filled to the brim with details that lure viewers to want to stay and peer around the corner to see what other discoveries could be made.
And then there are the plethora of puppets that populate Thra. Remember how moviegoers went gaga when “Star Wars” introduced the Porgs and whatever those Fish Nuns are into the franchise? “Age of Resistance” has them beat. Beyond creating the four major races – the Gelflings, Skeksis, the gentle Mystics, and the comical Podlings (plus, whatever Mother Aughra is) – the series stuffs its world full of imaginative and delightful creatures. Whether it’s the Crystal Skimmers, giant gliding manta rays that transport Gelfling in the desert, or the self-illuminating critter-plant beings found in the forests, Thra is teeming with fascinating puppet life designed by Brian Froud and his son Toby Froud.
One could easily be happy just soaking in Thra’s wonders, and director Louis Leterrier demonstrates this understanding each episode with establishing shots that combine steadicam work to follow actions or zooming crane shots to swing through the scenery before the show’s main title is superimposed over the image. This careful and continued reintroduction to the “Dark Crystal” world renews that sense of discovery and magic in the viewer each time.
The “Transporter” director also knows his way around an action shot – from the hand-to-hand combat to the dizzying flights through underground tunnels – which also take advantage of the full breadth of this fantastical world and matches the brisk and purposeful storytelling. Almost every scene serves a purpose in world- or character-building or moving the epic journey tale along.
Judicious use of humor keeps the Gelflings’ fight for justice from becoming too self-serious and also provides a nice balance to the more gruesome elements. While the producers stand by their creed that “Age of Resistance” is for “everyone,” it’s not for the very young or easily frightened. The Skeksis can be incredibly gross, and their malevolent actions even more stomach-turning. This is yet another instance in which the puppetry earns its keep by giving these fabricated bodies a visceral component. If you prick them, they will bleed… or at least ooze some viscous fluid. And yes, Gelflings and other creatures die by the Skeksis’ hand.
Kevin Baker / Netflix
The political parallels to the real world are fairly obvious, but what “Age of Resistance” does so well is demonstrating how easily lies are spread and how even faced with the truth, some will persist in believing the deception rather than admit to being duped. The message about strength in allies, despite cultural differences, is also clear. (One might say crystal clear.) This straightforward storytelling is simple and doesn’t rely on the continuous backstabbing of say, “Game of Thrones,” but there are still plenty of betrayals and surprises along the way.
In the end, the series is much like how the Skeksis and the Mystics meld to create the far more impressive being known as the urSkeks. “Age of Resistance” combines its excellent craftsmanship with inspiring storytelling to create one impressive and enthralling adventure. And that’s pure magic.
Readers who have seen all 10 parts of “Age of Resistance” can continue reading spoilers on the next page>>