The Pitch: Thousands of years (sorry, trines) before the barren, imbalanced Thra we see in Jim Henson’s 1982 classic The Dark Crystal, the alien world is a lush, vibrant wilderness, although still deep in the clawed grip of the evil, avian Skeksis. Having schemed their way to control over the planet, its many gentle races (including the brave, but innocent Gelfling), and the powerful crystal that ties all life to the planet together, the Skeksis squeeze Thra and its inhabitants for all the power they can muster, hoping to stave off death by any means necessary.
However, in this dystopian realm, sparks of resistance form, as three Gelfling — former castle guard Rian (Taron Egerton), intellectually-curious princess Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the spiritually-minded Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel) — learn different pieces of the puzzle that will lead to the Darkening of their land, and the Skeksis’ role in it. As they fight to survive and rally the fragmented segments of Gelfling society together, the Skeksis themselves discover a new use for the Dark Crystal that might see the extermination of the Gelflings and the destruction of Thra itself.
No Strings Attached: Let’s get one thing clear: The original Dark Crystal is a mess. It’s gorgeous, to be sure, and it stands as a testament to Jim Henson’s boundless imagination and creativity that he was able to leverage his cutesy Muppet reputation to push his particular brand of expressive puppetry into a dark fantasy epic about deforestation and death. But like many of the D&D-inspired works of its time, it’s slow, plodding, and filled with characters so stock you’d think they were made out of cardboard rather than felt.
It’s nothing short of a miracle, then, that Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews, alongside showrunner Javier Grillo-Marxuach and producer Lisa Henson (daughter of Jim), have managed to infuse the world of Thra with so much life and vibrancy. From a storytelling perspective alone, Age of Resistance manages to stack up quite nicely to your Games of Thrones and your Once Upon a Times; after a dense infodump on the world of Thra, courtesy of “Myth Speaker” Sigourney Weaver, the tale of Thra unfolds in a fairly organic manner.
It’s still quite complex. Not only do you have the interpersonal scheming of the nearly-dozen Skeksis that form the evil empire (voiced by luminaries like Jason Isaacs, Mark Hamill, and Simon Pegg), but there are seven different houses of Gelfling to contend with, each with their own matriarch (or “Maudra”) and particular set of skills and stereotypes. The Stonewood are the working-class warriors; the Vapra the intellectual elite; the Dousan the outcasts, and so on. And that doesn’t even touch the host of other races and creatures that populate Thra.
Amongst its high-fantasy trappings, though, Age of Resistance tells a highly political tale, one of class divisions and environmental strife and fake news and a host of other things that graft loosely onto our everyday concerns. After all, what are the Skeksis but greedy kleptocrats strip-mining the environment while gaslighting its citizens into believing it’s the right thing to do?
The Gelfling, meanwhile, are virtuous and kind, but divided by issues of caste and the propaganda that the Skeksis drill into their minds to keep them enslaved. They’re few, but they are more powerful than their lithe frame belies; they’ll have to tap into that power — and their connection to Thra itself — to free themselves from Skeksis rule. The innate humanism and naturalism of Henson’s work (especially in the original) is served nicely with this 21st-century subtextual facelift.
I’m No Puppet, You’re the Puppet: For all of its narrative complexity and shockingly political core, however, nothing in Age of Resistance quite thrills like its presentation. Naturally, the characters, creatures, costumes and environments of The Dark Crystal come courtesy of The Jim Henson Company, and they’re an absolute joy to look at. Every inch of Thra’s twisted-fantasy world (designed by the original film’s concept artist, Brian Froud) feels just two shades away from real, built with real materials and performed by some of the most experienced Muppeteers in the business (Kevin Clash, Louise Gold, Victor Yerrid). Sure, some CGI is used to accentuate the universe and remove puppeteers from the screen, but Age of Resistance puts the Muppets front and center. You’re almost too busy scanning over every delicious detail of the puppets and costumes — every wrinkle, every fold, every meticulously articulated eyebrow — that you might miss elements of its dense story.
More than a showcase for the Henson Company’s industry-standard work, however, it’s a surprisingly deft fantasy-adventure series, thanks chiefly to director Louis Leterrier and composers Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim. Leterrier’s been a workmanlike action director for a while (his biggest claims to fame are The Transporter and the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk), but Age of Resistance sees him working with dynamism and scope he hasn’t demonstrated up to this point. Action scenes are clear and exciting (save for the occasionally overwrought moment of what I can only describe as “puppet-fu”), and the camera moves through puppet-filled space with all the kineticism of a live-action film. All the while, Pemberton and Sim craft a dark, Celtic-inspired score that evokes more Ramin Djawadi’s work on Thrones than Trevor Jones’ bombast from the original film, but it fits the show’s more intricate emotional grace notes.
A Stacked Voice Booth: Not only does the series’ script (and 10-hour runtime) give its characters far more to do and be than the Fantasy 101 tropes of the original Dark Crystal, there’s quite a bit of star power behind the voices too. Egerton, Taylor-Joy, et al. lend oodles of pathos to their Gelfling protagonists, working overtime to compensate for the deficits in the Muppets’ level of facial expression. And of course, there are plenty of Harry Potter and Thrones alumni in the cast — Emmanuel, Isaacs, Toby Jones, Lena Headey, Natalie Dormer, Helena Bonham Carter, and so on — to lend the proceedings a bit of high-fantasy bona fides. The Skeksis are odiously delightful, too; part of the fun is picking out which high-profile comedian or actor plays who, from Awkwafina‘s screechy Collector to Andy Samberg‘s Heretic.
But some of the best performances come from the rare role in which puppeteers pull double duty: Donna Kimball‘s take on Dark Crystal fan-favorite character Aughra (an old crone who serves as the protector of Thra) is a beautiful tie to the original series, and Yerrid’s virtuous Podling sidekick Hup, with his big, vulnerable eyes and endearing babble, is one of the series’ standout characters.
The Verdict: Age of Resistance isn’t perfect. Like many a Netflix series before it, it occasionally struggles to structure its 10-episode season into a brisk, well-paced narrative, and there are sometimes too many characters to keep track of. But this feels like watching the Jim Henson Company at the height of its powers, a heartwarming return to the tactile, the practical, the immediate. In the age of CGI, fantasy is cheaper than ever to make, but with Age of Resistance, the Henson team take the road less traveled, and is all the more rewarding a watch because of it. I genuinely hope this series proves successful — not just to see what fate befalls the Gelfling resistance of Thra in future seasons, but to honor a show that understands the value of crafting inventive, beautiful worlds real enough to reach out and touch.
Where’s It Playing? The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance opens up a world of Muppet-based fantasy on Netflix August 30.