Released: 30th August 2019
Director: Louis Leterrier
Series Website: http://www.darkcrystal.com/
Cast: Donna Kimball, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, Nathalie Emmanuel, Taron Egerton, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Sigourney Weaver, Eddie Izzard, Lena Headey, Harvey Fierstein
Genre: Dark Fantasy, puppets
Series Rating: PG
Review Rating: 5/5
Being a child of the 80s I am privileged to have grown up in a time where film and TV felt truly magical. Pushing boundaries, innovation, and creating some of the best and most memorable cinema and TV shows I treasure and revisit to this day. Back in the 80s fantasy films were aplenty with Legend, The Last Unicorn, Watership Down, The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal. These films were gritty, dark and not afraid to expose children to dark, scary themes and creatures. Jim Henson himself believed that children should not be sheltered from fear and sadness. Co-director Frank Oz stated, “What Jim wanted to do, and it was totally his vision, was to get back to the darkness of the original Grimm’s fairy tales. He thought it was fine to scare children. He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.”
I myself grew up in a time when Jim Henson was still alive and I watched everything he created from Sesame Street to the Muppets and of course his feature fantasy films. The Dark Crystal came out in 1982, 2 years before I was born but none the less at an early age I grew up watching this and many of the films I previously mentioned. I loved these films because I was in awe of the detail, imagination and I had a fascination for darker things. Fantasy is one of my favourite genres of film and TV but only when it is done right and appeals to my dark tastes. The Dark Crystal was successful yet received mixed reviews for the fact it was so much different than anything Jim Hesnson ever created. Expectations of family-friendly Muppet-like puppets were turned on their head and The Dark Crystal created some truly horrific and nightmare-inducing creatures. In fact the film is really loved or hated for some people as children found it too much to handle the imagery and sounds of the film.
When I heard Netflix was going to create a possible prequel film or TV series I was excited but dubious. I knew how much love Jim Henson put into this film and all those who helped him create his vision. Netflix has a habit of completely trashing some properties. Cough cough…Death Note and Fullmetal Alchemist. I found some of their adaptions purely cash grabs at trends and nostalgia and I was concerned.
As time went on and more details were teased, including that they had gotten many of the original people involved in the project and Jim Henson’s children were overseeing it I was growing more at ease and excited. The biggest thing also being this would be practical and using puppets. Brian Froud and his family were back to build the world of Thra and of all designers I am one of the biggest fans of Froud’s work. His designs and illustrations are beyond otherworldly and phenomenal. One of my biggest inspirations. His approach to design is organic. His sons and wife also are big contributors as sculptors, artists and puppeteers. Toby Froud is also the baby from the Labyrinth. Then came news of the voice cast and I grew even more excited. Sadly Frank Oz would not be returning, however the voice castings would include Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Jason Isaacs, Eddie Izzard, Helena Bonham Carter and Harvey Fierstein just to name a few. Would they be able to truly bring the voices of the Skeksis and Aughra back to life? If anything, the voice work in the series has outshone the film.
The title for the series The Dark Crystal Age of Resistance was revealed. When the beautiful teaser trailers came out I felt like this looked extremely promising. So I waited eagerly for the 30th of August to lose myself in Jim Henson’s world of Thra and I was not disappointed at all! I know if Jim Henson could see what has been created with his universe he would be proud. I would, over 2 days, binge watch 10 nearly hour long episodes of this stunning masterpiece.
They started it with female narration and a computer animated story of the history of Thra and if you were not careful it would deceive you into believing the canon and original story had been changed. Though I will not post spoilers I definitely recommend you watch on because this misleading opening was a purposeful bit of plot and all will be revealed as you near the ending of the series. I read comments where some people were angry at the first episode for the change in the origin story of the Skeksis and urRu, otherwise known as the Mystics. Though I had a feeling that it was not the case and I loved the pacing and the gradual reveal of the Mystics’ true nature and history. I found this clever and great to engage those new to The Dark Crystal as well as those of us that grew up with it.
The story was absolutely full of depth and the plot was not too simple but not too complicated. Some have gone on to say this is like Game of Thrones for kids. I love how they explored the politics of the Gelflings clans and the creation of a matriarchal society while still feeling equal and respectful to both genders. Each Gelfling clan is ruled by a Maudra and then an All-Maudra that oversees and keeps unity of all clans. It was very fascinating to see the early interactions between the Skeksis and Gelfling, and that there was a time where they had peace and the Skeksis were revered and respected by the Gelfling as the lords of the Crystal. The overall plot however was to show the Skeksis abuse of the Crystal, leading to the imbalance in the Thra which would cause the Darkening. The Darkening corrupts nature and kills life. Being a prequel, we only see the beginning effects and the world is still full of life even around the Crystal Castle, which in the film is surrounded by barren wastes. It would lead up to the events of the film where the Gelfling were nearly all but wiped out from a war with the Skeksis and their insectoid-like creations Garthim.
Podling and a Fizzgigg from the Stonewood clan, the Dark Crystal Age of Resistance BFI London Exhibition, photos by Rebecca Bush
I really loved that the production balanced all the practical effects of the puppets and sets with some CGI effects. They wanted to recreate that tangible world where things had texture and the feeling one could reach out and touch it. CGI animation tests were done which are revealed in a making-of documentary, and it was agreed that CGI versions of the characters just would not suffice. A fully CGI animated series would have likely failed, especially among fans of the film. This production, while much more visually stunning with today’s filming technology, still gave us more tangible and immersive story telling. There are gross out scenes with mud, muck and infectious bodily fluids which CGI would not be able to create to such effect as practical. CGI and computer effects were used to make some scenes and puppets a little more lively. The landscapes and visuals were breath taking, seeing the world of Thra in all its glory above and underground. The scenery and attention to detail of the locations and dwellings of the inhabitants and creatures truly are some of the most visually stunning in TV history. The budget is of feature films and it shows. The craftsmanship and artistry show true love and passion. The puppets, from the small creatures to the Podlings, Gelfling, Skeksis and Mystics, showed such an amazing attention to detail.
The voice acting was absolutely wonderful. The actors and actresses playing the older characters such as the main Skeksis in the castle and Aughra did an amazing job getting the voices right. I nearly thought some of them were the original voice talents. Simon Pegg nailed the Chamberlin and his whimper. When they released the teaser and I heard that familiar whimper of Chamberlin I got goosebumps. I absolutely loved how much of Aughra we got in the series. Her importance in the world of Thra and connection to the Crystal of Truth is shown better in the series than the film. The new characters all sounded great and the Podling language was funny and cute. It truly was evident every person involved shared a love for The Dark Crystal and their performances were on point.
The Chamberlin and the Emperor, the Dark Crystal Age of Resistance BFI London Exhibition, photos by Rebecca Bush
While I know this series will likely be quite limited in seasons as it approaches the events of the film I definitely hope to see the future seasons continue telling this amazing story and keep the creative flow going. The good thing about the original film was that it did not have too much backstory, which could allow a prequel to truly flesh out the story. It kept its story and plot very simple. I might have hoped for something that went back a little further in time, and who knows, they could always explore different eras in Thra. Though this looks like it will remain quite linear from the time where the Gelfling began resisting the Skeksis to their eventual demise and the prophecy which would lead to the crystal being whole again. I am so happy Netflix gave the Jim Henson studios full creative license to create this story the way Jim Henson would have wanted and it was done so well that I am left wanting so much more! The first series came to a beautiful conclusion and did not end with a huge cliffhanger but knowing the prophecy is far from being fulfilled, meaning we should expect at least another season or two. Maybe they will even touch upon the birth and some of the early years of Jen and Kira the surviving Gelfling that we know from the film and who their parents are.
Deet, Princess Brea and Rian, the Dark Crystal Age of Resistance BFI London Exhibition, photos by Rebecca Bush
My rating of this series is a solid 5 out of 5. I loved every facet of this season. The pacing might be slow for some, especially in the first episode. All the humour, wit and nuance that appeal to children and adults in this epic fantasy was delivered and I will likely binge watch it again so I can soak in more of the details I might have missed. It was obviously a labour of love and it was delivered in exquisite detail and finesse. They did not stray from the dark and scary. There is a decent dose of graphic puppet violence. So this will not be appropriate for really small kiddos but that is up to the discretion of the parents. I watched the film when I was around 3 or 4. For me it did not have a negative impact, though I never was a normal child.
The Dark Crystal set piece, Mother Aughra and Prince Brea’s journal, the Dark Crystal Age of Resistance BFI London Exhibition, photos by Rebecca Bush
Reviewed by Cathrine Wendt
Additional photos by Rebecca Bush