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-[Film Reviews]-, -[Television Reviews]-, Hollywood, NORTH AMERICAN CINEMA

‘The Dark Crystal’ (1982, 2019): A Masterwork of Puppetry and Fantasy

Created by: Jim Henson [1], Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews [2] || Written by: David Odell [1], Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews, J.M. Lee, Vivian Lee, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Simon Racioppa, Richard Elliott, Kari Drake, Margaret Dunlap [2

Directed by: Jim Henson, Frank Oz [1] Louis Leterrier [2] || Starring: Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw, Percy Edwards [1], Warrick Brownlow-Pike, Dave Chapamn, Kevin Clash, Alice Dinnean, Damian Farrell, Louise Gold, Beccy Henderson, Helena Smee, Katherine Smee, Victor Yerrid, Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Shazad Latif, Harris Dickinson, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, Benedict Wong, Donna Kimball, Caitriona Balfe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Andy Samberg, Helena Bonham Carter [2]

Running Time: 93 minutes [1] || No. of Episodes: 10 (~500 minutes total) [2] || 1 = The Dark Crystal, 2 = Age of Resistance 

I have never been a fan of feature-length 3-D animation. Despite my affection for a handful of mainstream titles (e.g. Toy Story [1995], Zootopia [2016]), I find the 3-D style’s execution in most popular features by Pixar and its competitors restrictive and, at this point, repetitive. Many of the most successful of mainstream 3D animated films have good to great scripts, but with respect to direction, the entire movement seems to permanently rest on the laurels of Pixar’s groundbreaking Toy Story. Everything looks and feels the same. Stylistic deviations in films like A Scanner Darkly (2006) or Beowulf (2007) never break the animated mold the way I hope they would, nor do throwback family-friendly artistic styles like traditional hand-drawn (2D) animation or puppetry show much hope of a resurgence.

In Jim Henson’s 1982 Dark Crystal, the urRu/Mystic, Sean Barrett (right), guides the young Gelfling, Stephen Garlick (left), to his ultimate destiny to restore order to the fictional world of Thra.

The closest thing to a contemporary reappraisal of the latter on film is Netflix’s prequel series to the Jim Henson classic, The Dark Crystal, subtitled Age of Resistance. Henson, creator of and longtime writer for the seminal Muppets Show (1976-1981), deviated from the lighter, more upbeat material of his previous work to produce a darker, more dramatic feature that still appealed to all ages. It turned a modest profit (~$41 million against a $25 million budget) and opened to mixed reviews in 1982, yet has since gained a cult following and been critically reevaluated in the decades since.

I never saw the original Dark Crystal as a child, but was impressed with Henson and co-director Frank Oz’s (yep, Yoda) execution of a truly bonkers fantasy world as an adult. While its 93-minute storyline feels abbreviated from a larger, far more ambitious outline, to say the least, its modest narrative encapsulates memorable characters and astounding practical FX. The latter include not only terrific puppets with immaculate costume designs, but also creative sets, matte paintings, and an unforgettable, immersive diegesis.

Netflix’s Age of Resistance, spearheaded by the late Henson’s namesake production company, builds on the fantastical setting of The Dark Crystal and its particularly charismatic villainy and improves on them in every conceivable way. The show’s puppetry is enhanced with minimal but significant digital FX (e.g. removing wires and strings, computer generated characterizations in long-shots, color correction of different landscapes, etc.), while the overarching narrative and background lore are expanded to such a degree to put both The Mandalorian (2019-) and The Witcher (2019-), two much higher profile series on Disney+ and Netflix, respectfully, to shame. At ten 45-60 minute episodes in length (the series was canceled after a single season), Age of Resistance nails the right amount of diegetic exploration and thematic worldbuilding to accentuate plot conflicts, inform characters, and build tension throughout the narrative. The series neither drowns in diegetic minutiae a la the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005) nor settles for the bare-bones plot of the original Dark Crystal, and the story’s emotional impact is all the better for it.

In terms of direction, Age of Resistance further benefits from modern technology. Digital filmmaking allows the series much more dynamic camerawork that accentuates the vibrant puppetry, especially in action sequences and tracking shots. Numerous sequences with the skekMal (puppeteers = Kevin Clash, Nick Kellington; voice = Ralph Ineson), a particularly athletic, aggressive villain and my personal favorite character on the show, demonstrate the effectiveness of the show’s puppetry captured with energetic handheld or swooping crane shots. Thra, the fictional setting of Henson’s Dark Crystal mythos, may have been conceived in the 1980s, but it was only fully realized in 2019 with the added support of every modern filmmaking trick in the book and an expanded budget.

That budget may have been the single biggest reason, other than the series’ alleged disappointing viewership numbers, of course, that limited Age of Resistance to one season. Netflix has reportedly shifted its funding strategy for newer projects and may have grown more selective with even well regarded “Original” properties that don’t earn the viewership numbers they deem necessary. The continuation of Age of Resistance is a possible casualty of this understandable financial reset, but the fact remains that this Dark Crystal prequel story is one of the finest projects ever funded by the platform, one of the best franchise reboots in the modern era, streaming exclusive or otherwise, and is the type of offbeat visual powerhouse for which I subscribe to Netflix.

The skekMal (Kevin Clash/Nick Kellington) attacks Rian (Neil Sterenberg) in one of Age of Resistance’s best action scenes, showing a variety of practical, digital, and lighting FX.

The fact that something like Age of Resistance gets canceled but a plethora of generic, 3D animated “kid-friendly” features will continue to be greenlit every year (Trolls World Tour [2020] was one of the first profitable Hollywood tentpoles of the COVID-19 era, streaming online only) doesn’t surprise me, but this review article is not about another superfan bitching about their favorite shows getting canceled (see also Firefly [2002-2003], Penny Dreadful [2014-2016], Deadwood [2004-2006, 2019]). This essay is foremost a congratulation to one of the more unlikely franchise revivals of this era of streaming productions, and is secondarily a reminder to those in search of family-friendly content that there are options for Mom, Pop, and the little ones besides Marvel superhero movies and, yes, Pixar animated flicks. Sometimes, puppetry can be just as cinematic as animation — in this case, far more so.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Nuanced yet imaginative in their storytelling, dynamic yet specialized in their visual style, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal and its impressive prequel series, Age of Resistance, showcase the best of cinematic puppetry and fantasy worldbuilding. Its strategic, near impeccable mix of digital and practical FX are seamless and help sell the wide cast of characters on-screen, including some of the better fantasy villains in modern popular culture.

However… in struggling to think of weaknesses, an argument could be made that the prequel’s first only season runs an episode or two long, and conversely, the 1982 feature needed additional backstory exposition. Maybe.

—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

? skekVar: I thought you said there was no Darkening? || Emperor skekSo: I lied!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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