The original The Dark Crystal no doubt has its legion of fans for whom the Jim Henson-created semi-live-action fantasy film was a staple of their '80s childhoods. Now adults, with full-time jobs that help pay for things like Netflix subscriptions, one could easily surmise (as Netflix did) those Reagan-era kids are looking forward to all 10 hours of the prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. The only question is whether or not the original film is still as magical as they remember it to have been, and if a 10-hour prequel, featuring the voice talents of Mark Hamill, Mark Strong, Awkwafina, Taron Egerton, Natalie Dormer, and more, will be enough to re-ignite the flame of childhood wonder and help now-adult viewers to look past the unsettling, dead-eyed nature of the show’s puppet cast.
Released in 1982, featuring the voices of Henson himself, along with Frank Oz (aka, the man who brought Yoda to life),the original film told a somewhat convoluted tale of Thra, a distant world overrun by a race of bird-like creatures known as the Skeksis, who’ve taken hold of the planet’s power source — the crystal — and oppressed the Gelflings, the nature-loving creatures who originally inhabited the planet. The film was a traditional hero’s journey, following a Gelfling's quest to discover a missing shard of the crystal and restore balance to Thra.
For anyone who’s seen the original film — recently, or more than 30 years ago — its lasting appeal is based primarily on the creatures hatched in the famed Jim Henson workshop, the same place that birthed the likes of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, the entire Muppet family, the denizens of Sesame Street, and many, many more. These puppets are incredibly detailed and imaginative, and many of them have received an impressive upgrade in Age of Resistance, granting them greater freedom of movement and expression. And their mystical world has also been given makeover, though the magic of some cutting edge CGI effects. But, while many of the puppets look terrific — particularly the physically imposing Skeksis — and the world of Thra feels as if it is positively bustling with life, there’s still something deeply unnerving about the uncanny valley of the Gelflings and the little Podlings under the Skeksis’ control.
The issue of these characters being not quite convincingly lifelike is compounded by the series’ uneven script that fuels a languorous story kicked off with a lengthy exposition by the narrator — or Myth-Speaker (Sigourney Weaver) — explaining how the Skeksis came to be in control of Thra and its magical crystal. The premiere is overly concerned with and controlled by efforts to explain everything — from characters’ thoughts, background, and motivations — in exacting detail. As overused as the rule of “show don’t tell” is as this point, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance seems adamant in demonstrating why the rule was created in the first place.
There is a slight improvement in the second and third episodes, as the Skeksis’ plans to harness the power of the crystal are put into action. It also helps that Gelfling Rian (Egerton) is soon distanced from the castle and his enemies, giving him greater motivation beyond the death of his comrade and romantic interest (yes, even puppets are guilty of fridging) at the hands of the Scientist (Hamill). Additional subplots pop-up here and there, following different Gelflings voiced by Nathalie Emmanuel and Anya Taylor-Joy, though these threads suffer from the same pacing issues that plague the ever-squabbling Skeksis council as well as Rian’s not-so grand adventure.
One of the biggest concerns is how much time is spent with Rian and how little his character has to offer the story outside of acting brave and occasionally pulling his sword when need be. Throughout the series, Rian shows little inclination toward distinguishing himself in any meaningful way, which not only makes his solo quest drag, but it also limits how fulfilling his interactions with other characters are over the course of the story. Thankfully, that's less of an issue with some of the other Gelflings, like Deet (Emmanuel), who experiences the surface world for the first time and befriends a brave podling who all but makes Rian’s character superfluous, and Brea (Taylor-Joy) who discovers some fascinating truths about the Skeksis and Thra’s history while researching in a library.
As flat as many of the Gelflings are, the most uneven aspect of Age of Resistance is perhaps the Skeksis themselves. The tonality of the characters swings wildly from one scene to another, as the creatures appear to be bumbling fools one second and murderous fiends the next. It can also be difficult to tell the individual Skeksis apart, making it a challenge to discern which creature is conspiring against which and why. The series’ creators seemingly anticipated this being a problem and opted to make various style and performance adjustments. For starters, Hamill’s voice work hews rather closely to that of the Joker, while Mark Strong’s Ordon wears a telltale face ornament. The series could have gotten by playing it safe across the board, but instead the creators made the bizarre decision to have Awkwafina’s the Collector distinguish herself by constantly pulling long ropey strands of mucus from her face.
It all adds up to an uneven event series nearly more than 30 years in the making. Based on its admittedly impressive visuals alone, Age of Resistance will have no problem reconnecting with childhood fans of the original film or those who only recently discovered it. But for those looking for something more substantial and willing to go beyond the novelty of famous actors voicing live-action puppets, this Dark Crystal prequel may not be all it was purported to be. At 10 hours, the series is simply too long and too awkwardly paced to be more than another attempt to package and sell adult nostalgia.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance streams exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, August 30.