Although best known for his work on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, the late, great Jim Henson’s most personal project was 1982’s The Dark Crystal – an audacious fantasy film populated by puppets, built on a scale like never before (even by his own legendary standards). Now 37 years later, thanks to his daughter Lisa Henson and Netflix (both also teamed on Julie’s Greenroom, a puppet-driven children’s series championing arts education), comes this meticulously crafted and beautifully faithful prequel to Henson’s most cherished world.
Age of Resistance is a sweeping production, a grand and gorgeous epic that doesn’t just stay true to the original’s practical look and complex lore – it enriches Henson and Frank Oz’s vision with heart and wonder. But sadly, this awe-inspiring series will have to tackle two daunting obstacles before audiences even choose to experience it. Firstly, there are many who may be unfamiliar with the cult classic. That’s easily overcome because the show is engaging and evocative enough to wow first-timers. The second problem is a little harder to solve.
There are a large number of modern viewers who may be put off by the puppets. While the use of old-school puppetry techniques (enhanced by cutting-edge CGI as it is) was a major drawing point for established fans – the aesthetic might be a deal-breaker for neophytes. And that is a shame, because Age of Resistance is undoubtedly, one of the greatest fantasy narratives to ever be put on screen, and one of 2019’s most jaw-dropping TV events. If your puppet bias holds you back, well, it’s your loss. With that said, let’s discuss why this was such a triumph.
Notably, this series takes place before the catastrophic events of the movie, which depicted the world of Thra in a state of apocalyptic ruin – ruled over by the villainous, vulture-esque race called the Skeksis, who have harnessed the magical Crystal of Truth to achieve immortality and drain the planet of life. Over 10 episodes, Age of Resistance tells the story of how a paradise became poisoned, building out Dark Crystal’s mythology to explore the Skeksis’ descent and the noble rebellion led by a elven-ish race called the Gelfling. The world-building here is exemplary.
While the peaceful and earnest Gelflings were almost extinct in the film, the series is set in a time when they were abundant, and Age of Resistance takes great care to immerse us into their matriarchal societies – delving into their myriad of belief systems, cultures and prejudices. We discover all this through the tales of three specific Gelflings – the warrior Rian (Taron Egerton), the gentle Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel), and the scholarly rebel Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy). Each begin in different places, but their interwoven paths draw them together to stop the Skeksis.
Of course, Thra isn’t just populated by Gelflings. Along the way we meet a variety of other wonderfully realized creatures, including the kindly Podlings. These beings feel vivid, nuanced and tactile – thanks the superlative voice acting and sublime puppeteers. But the show’s true larger-than-life delights are the grotesque Skeksis, voiced by a murderer’s row of talent – including Simon Pegg (Chamberlain), Jason Isaacs (Emperor), Harvey Fierstein (Gourmand), and Mark Hamill (Scientist), Awkwafina (The Collector), and Andy Samberg (The Heretic).
While the Gelfling exude gentleness and relatability, the Skeksis crew (voice cast, design, and camera direction) go big in depicting the villains’ terrifying ugliness – inside and out. With over 170 puppets built by the Jim Henson Creature Shop for this series, operated by no less than 83 puppeteers – Age of Resistance’s textured characters are marvels brought to life by expert craftsmanship and spellbindingly effective performers. But beyond the technical wizardry, this prequel is a gripping cautionary tale that’s emotionally resonant and thematically urgent.
As the Skeksis label all evidence of “the Darkening” (Thra’s state of decay due to the misuse of the Crystal) as fake news, while discrediting whistleblowers as heretics – the fact that they have convinced the world that their greed is benevolent, is the show’s hardest-hitting sociopolitical and environmental allegory. Similarly, while Age of Resistance’s vibrant, joyful and heartwarming fantasy yarn might initially seem like an all-ages watch – it can also be harrowing, tragic, and frightening – never shying away from dark adult concepts and nightmarish imagery.
Besides a dedication to retaining Henson’s complex world and puppet artistry, Age of Resistance retains his warnings against corrupt leadership and ecological apathy as well. Combining wondrous magic, political intrigue, compelling character dynamics, thoughtful themes and majestic craftsmanship – writers Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, alongside director Louis Leterrier – have created a staggering 10-hour spectacle that will enthrall long-time fans and newcomers alike. Jim Henson would be proud.