One of the best things about the Jim Henson Company’s sumptuous new Netflix series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, is just how little resistance there is for most of the show.

If anything, the prequel series to Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, an odd 1982 puppet film that’s since become a beloved cult classic, is about complacency.

The rare dark fantasy targeted at both adults and children, Age of Resistance is frequently more brutal than its forebear, which is itself frequently criticized for being too grim for kids. Many of the series’ most jarring moments happen when it explores, with on-the-nose shrewdness, how hard it is to upend the status quo, to shake people out of their belief that everything is fine, and create a real revolt.

Rating: 4 out of 5

To say this approach subverts the expectations that a title like “age of resistance” might convey is putting it mildly. The Henson Company, in its most ambitious project to date, has arguably already entirely subverted 2019 expectations by telling its entire, 10-episode story mainly through puppetry rather than CGI. The result is gorgeous, thoughtful, detailed, and utterly remarkable. There’s a delightful moment late in the season when the puppets themselves tell stories through the age-old “sacred” art of puppetry, and we completely understand why they hold it so dear.

Gelfling and podlings in simpler times.

The Dark Crystal was one of the late Jim Henson’s pet projects, one whose world he continued to build and expand for years after the film was created, and the new production has been built as faithfully as possible to that spirit. It’s in many ways as odd as its predecessor, though perhaps for different reasons. The Dark Crystal was odd because it was dark for a children’s film; Age of Resistance is odd because it’s so deeply committed to both its high level of puppetry and its epic fantasy.

Its setting is a fantasy world as vast and complex as the most high-budget epic fantasies, yet its puppetry means many viewers might expect the series to convey a constant whimsy. But while there are many moments of whimsy, they’re grace notes on a show that’s unabashedly somber; if anything, the rich detail of the puppetry and production design paradoxically makes Age of Resistance’s world feel even bleaker, and lends its moments of real horror a disturbing sense of the uncanny valley. Through it all, the production is blessed with a huge, delighted, and delightful cadre of A-list actors (seriously, the list is eye-popping), all taking their roles very seriously.

The care, the attention to detail, and the roster of stars eager for involvement are all an indication of just how highly valued Age of Resistance is by its creators — and how ultimately satisfying it is that the resulting series is a win for everyone.

Age of Resistance drops us into a once-thriving world that’s rapidly in decline

Ain’t no party like a skeksis party!

Probably because it was brought to us by Jim Henson, creator of the lovable, bright, and happy Muppets and Fraggles, the original film’s dystopian tone, with its barren population and scorched world, is a concept that critics just couldn’t seem to get over. Even as late as 2009, the film was widely framed as “surprisingly dark (despite the hint right there in the title) for a children’s film.”

Many critics of The Dark Crystal were dismissive, often negatively contrasting the film to the Muppets and panning Henson’s attempt to create a fully immersive universe — a world that transcended the genre constraints of what “children’s” storytelling might do, while enhancing the fantasy capable through the wonder of puppetry.

Positive reviews considered the film a technical achievement, however, and Variety noted that the film was a “dazzling” allegorical morality tale. That take has remained consistent over the years as the film’s reputation has improved; earlier this year, one reviewer wrote, “The world of The Dark Crystal felt lived in, and it didn’t feel like a Lord of the Rings clone either. This is harder to achieve than it might appear, and it’s … also something that’s getting harder to find these days, now that Hollywood has taken to doing remakes and franchise tie-ins.”

“As it exists, the movie would/could not be made the same way today,” one critic wrote in 2013. “Obviously the practically-created characters would be replaced by CGI, but more than that the film’s tone and presentation would be sped up and watered down.”

But that didn’t happen. Age of Resistance is a fully live-action, fully puppeteered show, with CGI used as a tool of refinement rather than as the only paintbrush. And the film’s tone and presentation have been beautifully and faithfully transferred to the small screen — along with its themes and complex world-building.

The story Age of Resistance is building up to is the story told in The Dark Crystal: the story of a scorched wasteland of a planet, called Thra, and the fight to restore balance to it by healing the giant purple quartz at its center. During the film, Thra has a handful of struggling inhabitants and only two surviving members of a once-populous species known as Gelfling. They work together to restore the broken pieces of the Crystal, which once kept the planet’s energy and life force in balance. In the end, the Crystal is healed and the planet revived.

The prequel series is drawn carefully from the existing lore of the franchise, which the Henson Company has expanded very haltingly and deliberately over the years through carefully chosen and slowly added franchise tie-ins, including a novel series and a two-volume manga. But Age of Resistance has a lot more on its mind than just filling in the historical timeline for fans. It takes place about a century before the film (after the Crystal cracked but before anyone realizes its significance), in an era when things are just starting to take a turn for the worse. This expanded history paints Thra as a thriving world with many different species, who all play different parts in the disaster that ultimately befalls the planet.

Gelflings in the Jim Henson studio’s new Netflix series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
Gelfling look for a way to heal the Crystal, find cool archaeology along the way.

In the show, the Gelfling are populous, divided into clans with distinct customs. Aughra, an immortal one-eyed witch, once guarded the Crystal and watched lovingly over all of Thra, but she’s been persuaded by the Skeksis — a handful of crafty, oversized vulture-esque creatures, descended from aliens and thus not part of Thra’s delicate harmonic balance — to leave them in charge of everything while she pursues knowledge instead.

Little does Aughra or any of the trusting Gelfling know that the Skeksis are ruthless power-mongers. With the Crystal in their charge, they proceed to mismanage and drain the Crystal of its power, effectively turning it “dark.”

The Crystal’s corrupted energy causes a malevolent blight, both psychological and physical, to seep into Thra’s plants and animals.

This is where the story of Age of Resistance begins: with the strange, spreading rage of the planet raising alarm bells all at once.

Age of Resistance takes its time fomenting rebellion, but the slow pace is a reward unto itself

Aughra just woke up from a millennia-long nap, and she’s grumpy.

Age of Resistance’s story is a communal one. None of its main characters are meant to be stand-ins for the Dark Crystal’s “chosen one” story, which saw one Gelfling fulfilling a prophecy and saving the planet. Rather, Age of Resistance sees many characters separately realizing that something is desperately wrong with the planet.

Among them is Rian (voiced by Rocketman’s Taron Egerton, puppeteered by Neil Sterenberg), a Gelfling military officer’s son who’s abruptly forced to flee his cushy castle life after he accidentally sees something horrible: the Skeksis want to use the Crystal’s corrupted energy to drain the life force of the Gelfling and gain immortality themselves. Rian’s status as witness to their plan puts his life in instant danger.

Simultaneously, another Gelfling, Deet (voiced by Game of ThronesNathalie Emmanuel and puppeteered by Derry GirlsBeccy Henderson), a member of a vast clan of underground Gelfling, sees for herself how the blight is infecting the animals of Thra. She’s sent by her people above ground, on a quest to make the other clans aware of what the blight is doing. And Brea (voiced by The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy, puppeteered by Alice Dinnean), a princess to one of the planet’s matriarchal Gelfling clans, has been having visions that point her toward a way to heal the planet before the blight spreads further.

The series moves mainly between each of these three characters as they strive, in their own ways, to make those around them aware of what they’ve seen. All of them have trouble getting anyone else to listen: Rian because he’s being blacklisted by the Skeksis, Deet because her outsider status makes her a subject of frequent ridicule, and Brea because of tensions in her family, particularly with her sister Seladon (voiced by Sense8’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw and puppeteered by Helena Smee).

All the while, the Skeksis — voiced by a crackling cadre of actors, including a standout Simon Pegg as the Chamberlain, Jason Isaacs as the gravel-voiced emperor, Mark Hamill’s long-suffering scientist, and Awkwafina (Awkwafina!!!), Keegan-Michael Key, and Benedict Wong, all hamming it up and living their best lives — are about to put their genocidal plan into motion. And Aughra, whose inattention allowed the Skeksis to corrupt the Crystal to begin with, is trying to rapidly make up for lost time and unite the heroes before the Skeksis kill them all.

(It’s worth noting here that the Skeksis’s pure, loving counterparts, the camel-like Mystics, are barely part of the television series, at least in the beginning. Fans of the film might be confused that the show initially presents the Skeksis as though the Mystics aren’t part of the picture, but this is mainly for expediency; the Mystics are important to the series, promise!)

Age of Resistance spends much of the season’s first half familiarizing us with these disparate parts of Thra’s universe, and getting us acquainted with its large ensemble of characters. While some huge — and shocking — twists happen early on, characters spend the front half of the series doing a lot of traveling and discussing things like politics and social customs. This won’t be for everyone; these early portions may feel meandering, even to the most dedicated Dark Crystal fan. But the series gradually heats up and spins into nearly non-stop action in the season’s latter half. There’s enough going on in every scene that even when the pacing is slow, Age of Resistance is still engrossing to look at, a visual and technical marvel.

Age of Resistance is a technical and artistic wonderland — and its parts cohere to advance a complex story

Nearly every shot of Age of Resistance is rich with detail.

Director Louis Leterrier, whose background includes high-budget action films like Clash of the Titans (2010), has focused on making the world of Thra feel vivid, vast, and bustling; Age of Resistance is nothing like a room full of hand-held animatronic puppets. To this end, he’s carefully staged many of the action sequences so that remain coherent and cohesive, even though all the actors are puppets. This is no easy task, but the camera work and editing pretty much pull it off.

It’s the production and art design, combined with the intricate world-building and a lush musical soundscape, that elevates the show from a work of practical effects into a journey through a fantastical, beautiful world. Everything onscreen is elaborate, detailed, and intentionally placed.

That includes the constant palette of warm colors, vibrant plants, and background life that populate every outdoor scene, and the sterile yet beautiful interiors of the Gelfling palace contrasted with the veiny, leathery look of the Skeksis’ castle and cobweb-shrouded caves. The sets are not only richly layered and interesting just to stop and look at; they also build subtly on the show’s thematic ideas, reminding us often that Thra’s citizens have spent thousands of years cultivating ceremony and order — all of it disregarded and disrespected by the greedy Skeksis.

But most impressive of all are the subtleties and variations in puppets, designed by longtime Henson collaborator Brian Froud. The sheer attention to detail that’s gone into crafting the puppets alone means that many characters who could easily read to the audience as identical and interchangeable — including all of the Skeksis and all of the Gelfling — feel individual and easily recognizable from one another.

… ’cuz a Skeksis party don’t stop! (Until it’s consumed everything around it.)

All of this detail starts to pay off when the story gets more complex, and the pace quickens a bit. Because so much work has gone into making all of the characters distinct and individualized, you never once feel distracted by the puppetry, or jarred out of the series’ serious tone. Instead, moments where the puppets are shown in minute closeup — a character’s flushed expression, a pair of hands nervously clutching one another — ratchet up the emotional intensity. It all combines to make the series’ themes feel weighty and carefully considered.

And those themes are quite sophisticated; Age of Resistance is concerned not just with complacency, but also its consequences and the ease with which a regime-ruled society can spread lies, exacerbate tensions, and turn peaceful communities against themselves.

Obviously, all of this is rife with contemporary political allegory. Age of Resistance is a children’s show, so there’s still plenty of hope, and ultimately the titular resistance, in the mix — perhaps even some hopepunk. Still, the knowledge that the Thra we see onscreen turns into the barren, blackened place of the film looms over this series. And the Henson Company clearly trusts that the audiences who turned the film into a cult classic, despite its untoward, bleak tone, is an audience who will stick around for whatever lies ahead — even if what lies ahead is darkness.

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