'Dark Crystal' Netflix Review: Epic Puppets Tell an Authentic Human Story
The prequel to Jim Henson and Frank Oz's generational cult classic 'The Dark Crystal' succeeds his legacy, imperfections and all.
Even if you find all ten episodes of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance hard to follow — and they are, with a magical vocabulary, impenetrable lore, and characters who look indistinguishable in great numbers — you can’t help but be mesmerized by its beauty, heart, and humor. The heroes and villains may all be puppets, but this is some of the most human storytelling on TV right now.
Streaming on Netflix on August 30, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a prequel to Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s cult 1982 puppet fantasy film, The Dark Crystal with an all-star voice cast. That includes Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Eddie Izzard, Mark Hamill, Awkwafina, Caitriona Balfe, Simon Pegg, Benedict Wong, Andy Samberg, and somehow more.
Set generations before the movie, the series reveals what happened to Thra, a fantasy land divided between the powerful Skeksis (hawkish monsters that epitomize the one-percent) who secretly use the “Dark Crystal” to achieve long life; and the working-class Gelfling (think rabbits crossbred with Hobbits).
The show’s three heroes (Rian Brea, and Deet) are Gelflings who emerge from diverse backgrounds and unite by chance. Rian (Egerton) is an ambitious soldier accused of murdering his fellow soldier and lover; Brea (Joy) is a Gelfling princess who would rather adventure than do politics; and Deet (Emmanuel) is a child of a clan long thought dead who must find Aughra, an ancient astronomer who embodies the very planet.
The three Gelflings inspire revolution against the Skeksis — temperamental, drunk, and gluttonous bird-like villains who control Gelflings and worship power. The Dark Crystal is a gift and a curse for the Skeksis, giving them long life but hooking them like a violent addiction. In a ruthless pursuit of more of the crystal’s essence, by the fourth episode you’ll have seen Skeksis leaders maim and punish their subordinates maybe a half-dozen times.
I don’t think parents need not be concerned whether The Dark Crystal is too violent or mean for the young ones. The show hits the sweet spot of terrifying children just to a point where it’s an excellent teaching moment. Let the kids watch Age of Resistance and then ask them: What about the Skeksis makes them mean? Dark Crystal is a potentially great opportunity to teach children the significance of unchecked, drunk power and why justice and empathy are so important.
Although there’s plenty of CGI, the chief attraction of The Dark Crystal is its puppetry. And what a beautiful, tactile world the series makes out of those dang puppets, crafted beautifully by The Jim Henson Company. The killer alchemy of director Louis Letterier’s framing, rich sound and production design, and sharp writing elevates Age of Resistance beyond an overproduced theme park attraction. Thra feels real, because most of it is real. And if Netflix sticks around for the next three decades, Age of Resistance is bound to visually age the finest out of everything in its content library.
It’s also compelling to think of Louis Letterier, an otherwise unlikely candidate to direct Dark Crystal. Like, maybe working on 2008’s unremarkable The Incredible Hulk taught him a thing or two about framing creatures, but Lettier treats his subjects like living, breathing things, and it’s a treat. It was Henson who made his Muppets come alive like stage actors, and it’s only been the Muppets/Henson to ever do so in film. Whether it’s because Netflix afforded it all the production value it could get, or Lettierer’s actually that good and we never knew it, Henson faithful will be pleased to know just how much Letterier and his team take care of Henson’s legacy for the craft.
Gelflings, Skeksis, Thra, the diminutive Podlings — there’s a lot of weird words and concepts thrown around The Dark Crystal. But at its core, there’s an authentically human tale resonant in 2019, complete with all the crucial socio-political themes good fantasy is meant to tell: Class warfare, racism, greed, and touches that make it clear Skeksis only want to Make Thra Great Again. There’s an actual power in Gelflings to share memories as truth, yet Skeksis still control them with “fake news.” And Gelflings are no saints either, with their own hierarchy of “high” and “low” clans that our heroes finally question and challenge.
Revolution is arguably one of the most human ideas, as evidenced throughout, well, all of history. And The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance leaves no ambiguity as to who the good guys and bad guys are in the clash; Gelflings aren’t perfect, but theres’ absolutely nothing redeeming in the Skeksis. They’ve effed up Thra for their own gain (and even then, it’s slowly killing them), leaving the mess for everyone else to clean up. They are profoundly characterized by ignorance, attraction to power, and an insatiable hunger for power, life, and influence, that I’m honestly surprised the Skeksis never wear cheap red hats.
But for all its timeliness, Age of Resistance is just a plain good story about bravery and the triumph of good over evil. You don’t need to be keeping up with the Democratic nominees to grasp the show’s basic moral messaging of “Greed is bad.” It’s just harder to grasp the little things about Thra, especially as its fantasy sensibilities are a touch dated.
The film is literally a prequel, but in spirit Age of Resistance is a return to ‘80s fantasy. Where today’s fantasy brings grit and gloom to worlds of swords and sorcery, Dark Crystal brings back an emphasis on whimsical creatures, indecipherable names, and phenomenally-designed monsters with clever design. (I’m most impressed by a “rock guardian” whose creator left a message on a “phonograph” cylinder on his creation’s arm. It’s just so cool.) Age of Resistance is just one Limahl pop ballad away from transporting viewers straight to 1989.
As good as Age of Resistance is, it’s unlikely to lead a new puppet revolution. It’s exactly a show made for the Netflix era, one that targets niche nostalgia and throws it all the money and star power imaginable. It’s bold, unafraid of alienating audiences whose only exposure to fantasy is Game of Thrones (a “realistic” fantasy that spent eight long seasons allergic to awe and wonder). There’s plenty of awe to go around in Age of Resistance, and it only leaves you wanting more.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance begins streaming on Netflix on August 30.