Review by C.J. Bunce
Nothing in my lifetime in the fantasy genre has had an impact as great as Jim Henson, his creations, and influence. That stretches to The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie, tangent puppet creations like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, and Henson’s masterwork, the 1982 holiday release The Dark Crystal. So nothing could be greater than to revisit The Dark Crystal in a new incarnation, and not only find the people behind it got it right, but set a new standard in storytelling along the way. No visual storytelling medium is older than puppetry, and nothing reaches inside you like a story told with creations you know aren’t real, yet when done exceptionally well they convey every emotion as if they were real. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, now streaming on Netflix, sets a new bar because it expands on the original film’s story, bringing to life a larger, fully fleshed-out world and a timeless tale that firmly installs the name Henson (Jim and daughters Lisa and Cheryl) as equal to fantasists like the Grimms, Kipling, Milne, Howard, Tolkien, Lewis, Beagle, Harryhausen, Lucas, Jackson, and Rowling. “Wonder” should be the Henson family hallmark. Beyond that, the series surpasses the best fantasy of television and big-screen productions, so from here on audiences may ask comparatively, “Yes, but does it convey the emotion and wonder The Dark Crystal series created?”
Dynamic, thrilling, suspenseful, and full of action, mythology, sorcery, good and evil, despair and triumph, swashbuckling adventure, unimaginable beauty and love for nature and community, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance presents better than anything before what every other fantasy before it seems to stumble on: Stakes. The preparation of the viewer for a world of dire fantasy stakes couldn’t have been more artfully revealed. What is at stake in the film isn’t just another “end of the world” story, but something that reaches in and makes you believe a stack of rocks can be lovable, the innocent can rise against the darkest evil, where the world of humans and their conflicts is not a consideration, and where you may find you want a hug from a giant spider. Glorious, ground-breaking, faithful to the original, with thousands of creators making a film in a spectacularly difficult way, it more than fulfills its promise.
You could heap all sorts of praise on the series, beyond Netflix for betting its money on a prequel, the Hensons and original visionary family the Frouds, beyond director Louis Leterrier, writers Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, haunting music by Daniel Pemberton, the spectacular assemblage of voice actors, from Simon Pegg and Warrick Brownlow-Pike (who perfectly resurrected Chamberlain the Skeksis, one of fantasy’s greatest villains) to Donna Kimball and Kevin Clash (resurrecting fantasy’s greatest sorceress, Aughra). The unsung heroes will be those puppeteers and the designers of the production, the puppets, the costumes, and props. There’s not a big enough award for this series or its many creators, artists, and artisans, and all that had to come together to make it. A glimpse behind the scenes can be found in a must-see feature following the ten episodes of the series.
Some of the most memorable dialogue awaits viewers (“You dare to control Aughra? Aughra can barely control Aughra!”) as well as key scenes and sets (The Deterge! The Library! The Gobbles! The Heretic and Wanderer puppet show!), and one of fantasy’s most memorable set pieces: the reconstructed Orrery of Aughra from the original film. Viewers won’t forget the many memorable new heroes and heroines: Deet, Rian, Brea, Hup, Lore, Gurgin, The Archer, Maudra Fara, the Hunter Skeksis, Spitters, more Landstriders, the eye-patched Baffi the Fizzgig, and many others.
Episode 7 will probably be the best single episode of television you’ll watch this year, with several surprises, including unexpected characters and voices.
Could the best live-action fantasy ever made actually be a television series? I think it just happened. It’s every bit Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, but done with more technological challenges, not only great actors in great costumes with great sets, but just as long–ten hours–and created in six months instead of three years (and without the denouements). Best of all the production casts aside CGI because it just doesn’t need it, that great innovation that is superb when used wisely, but has more often been the crutch of every blockbuster genre film franchise. This series uses it only as supplemental to the practical sets and characters.
The year’s best television production? Easily. Maybe it’s the best TV show of the past five years. This series is a stunner. It’s not just good, it’s The Empire Strikes Back good. It’s Jim Henson good. Watch it with the entire family, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is streaming now on Netflix.