There’s a jaw-dropping, massive puppet that debuts about halfway through Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance that's easily among the most impressive of all time. Just as the story feels as if it might drag in its middle, it brings in one of its most fascinating, innovative magic tricks, a rock monster named Lore.
It's emblematic of the series, a prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy classic The Dark Crystal. It’s a show of non-stop “how did they do that” moments, sandwiched between surprisingly strong characters and epic, fantastical story beats. Even without that writing, the puppetry alone would cement Age of Resistance as the greatest-ever tribute to the legacy of Henson, who also created the Muppets and Fraggle Rock. But as it stands, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance doesn’t only pay homage to that legacy — it improves, builds upon, and pushes his form in new areas.
Puppetry is undergoing a sort of comeback in recent years, kick-started by James Bobin’s 2011 revival of the Muppets. That film, simply titled The Muppets, brought Henson’s gang of familiar puppets back into the mainstream for the first time in more than a decade, and quickly spawned a sequel, Muppets Most Wanted. Those films, although certainly an enjoyable return to a world of over-the-top humor and catchy tunes, didn’t do many new things, content to coast on nostalgia and clever jokes. But in just the past couple of years, a couple of puppet properties have used this resurgent popularity to attempt to innovate in what kind of stories puppets can tell.
In late 2015, ABC greenlit an official Muppets TV show, a mockumentary of late-night shows with a topical edge. It packed in reference after reference and employed a liberal dose of thinly veiled “adult jokes,” and was in many ways similar to last year’s The Happytime Murders, an R-rated puppet comedy. That film, directed by Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson and director of multiple official Muppet films himself, was made as a production of The Henson Company. The problem with both of these properties, though they are both attempts to change what Muppets/puppets can do, is that they’re just boring. Instead of using their admittedly fun premises to do something new, the ABC show and The Happytime Murders simply tell the same, old styles of Muppet stories, but with new (worse) jokes. Although not exactly an insult to Henson's memory, they neither successfully carry on his legacy nor effectively pay homage in the way the 2011 Muppets film does.
In steps Louis Leterrier, director of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, who has what can only be described as a troubled filmography; his highest-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes is the aforementioned Marvel release, sitting at a nice 67 percent. Despite his shaky history, it was Leterrier’s passion that got a Dark Crystal TV show off the ground, along with Netflix’s seemingly bottomless checkbook and the blessing of Lisa Henson, CEO of The Henson Company and brother to Brian. As it turns out, Leterrier proved the perfect candidate for an out-of-the-ordinary puppet story, and achieved what many over the past few years, and even Jim Henson himself, couldn’t.
Now, this may potentially be a #HotTake, but the original Dark Crystal, although certainly beautiful and packed to the brim with jaw-dropping puppetry, is fairly boring. Visually, it’s one of the most astoundingly inventive stories of all time, combining new elements of fantasy stories and some of the most unique otherworldly races ever. The problem is, there’s very little story or character progression over the runtime, and it leaves the 90 minutes feeling like three hours. It heavily emphasizes plot development over characters, and by the time the movie ends, it’s difficult to care what happens to any of them. Additionally, the direction for the entire film feels quite small, ditching the more epic, grandiose atmosphere of fantasy cinema for smaller dioramas. Although this fits settings like Kermit’s swamp in 1979's The Muppet Movie, it’s out of place in such a massive, high-fantasy adventure, and makes everything seem insignificant.
Here’s where The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance comes in. Not only does it create new types of puppet creatures, but it improves on every facet of the original. The wooden, non-animated faces of the creatures in the original? Fixed, using machinated facial movements controlled with a modified Wii Remote. Small, unimpressive direction that doesn’t utilize scale? Ditched for an entirely new style, adapting the visual language of films like Lord of the Rings to impart gravity on every beat the story. Action sequences with little to no movement? Completely revitalized and improved by technology. Instead of two characters swinging swords lifelessly, they opt get rapid-fire cuts, like something out of a Bourne film or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It makes these fights dynamic and riveting, but still clear enough to follow the action A script driven by plot progression instead of strong characters? Flipped entirely, sometimes devoting entire episodes to understanding the characters instead of pushing them along a path.
And then, on top of all of these improvements, it goes and creates some of the coolest, most impressive creatures of all time. From the unsettlingly smooth-crawling Arathim to the truly terrifying Nurlocs, it never ceases to amaze. Jim Henson once said that out of all of his projects, the original Dark Crystal is the one he’s most proud of. It was truly new when it debuted, creating a fantasy world filled with spider creatures, evil bird men and small elf-goblins. Since then, puppet shows and movies have coasted on previously existing styles, and it’s so, so refreshing to see true innovation for the first time in decades.
When The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was conceived, they could’ve easily taken the easy route. Netflix could’ve created an all-CG animated series that cashes in on nostalgia for a cult-classic ‘80s film, and we would’ve gone about our business. Instead, they let an eccentric director with a less-than perfect track record direct a nearly 10-hour puppet fantasy series with what seems like a nearly bottomless budget. From start to finish, it feels like a miracle, and I just wish Jim Henson could’ve been here to see it.
Streaming now on Netflix, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is directed by Louis Leterrier, and features the voice talents of Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel , Caitriona Balfe, Helena Bonham Carter, Harris Dickinson, Natalie Dormer, Eddie Izzard, Theo James, Toby Jones, Shazad Latif, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mark Strong, Alicia Vikander, Harvey Fierstein, Mark Hamill, Ralph Ineson, Jason Isaacs, Keegan-Michael Key, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Simon Pegg, Andy Samberg and Donna Kimball.