tv review

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Is a Staggering Achievement

Photo: Kevin Baker/Netflix

There’s a bit at the start of the second episode of fantasy epic The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a prequel to Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s 1982 feature film, that sums up everything that makes its merging of puppetry and filmmaking so special. It’s a simple scene: A minor character awakens in his bed one morning, steps into his shoes, pulls them on tight, eats a bowl of porridge at the kitchen table, spills some on his shirt, combs his hair in a hand mirror, then goes off to work as a cleaner, his duster and rag at the ready. It all feels as tossed-off as if you were watching a skilled human actor perform the actions. But the character is a puppet built in a shop, and all this marvelous naturalism is an illusion resulting from careful coordination among dozens of puppeteers, craftspeople, and filmmakers.

The little spot of drool in the corner of his mouth was dabbed onto the puppet by a craftsperson, but you accept it as a biological reality because of the way the puppet “breathes,” and the way his eyes are pinched shut while he “sleeps.” The gag where he spills porridge on himself is a testament to blocking action for the benefit of a camera: Cookie Monster notwithstanding, a puppet can’t really eat porridge and dribble some out — even human actors might have trouble making food land in the right spot — so they put some on the shirt front ahead of time, then had the camera dip down to reveal “spilled” porridge that was already there. The shots of the character putting on his shoes are another little magic trick involving segmented “feet” being pushed into shoes by a puppeteer’s hands, with the framing so tight that you only see the feet and the shoes. And when the character is pulling the shoes on tighter, there’s a puppeteer operating the character from a hole in the bed. The character’s hands have already been affixed to the edges of the shoes, probably with Velcro, and because the shot begins when the character is already in the process of tugging the shoes on tighter, the viewer doesn’t ask how a puppet’s tiny hands, too small for human hands, could “grip” the tops of the shoes.

I realize this is an awful lot of analysis to expend on a single scene that isn’t even important to the main story of Age of Resistance. (I could write a whole other paragraph extolling the quiet majesty of the moment when the character, dissatisfied with how he’s combed his hair, whips it around wildly, then practically leers at himself as if to say, “You handsome devil.”) But if you’re an obsessive fan of puppetry, and the Muppets in particular — and reader, I totally am — this is how your mind naturally works. And I am here to tell you that there is no way this show won’t satisfy you.

Adapted by writers Jeff Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and directed by Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk) in a dynamic, at times chaotic style reminiscent of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy and Game of Thrones, this Netflix series is officially a prequel, but you needn’t have seen Henson and Oz’s movie to follow the story. After a dense opening prologue with a lot of Tolkien-esque names, the narrative is not difficult to track, and even if you do get momentarily confused about political or dynastic particulars, the action is usually staged in a way that makes the characters’ actions easy to understand. Like the original movie, this series is set on the planet Thra, which is ruled by hideous birdlike giants called Skeksis who have dominion over other races and species, including the elf-like Gelflings; the main story is about a small group of heroes who discover a horrible secret about the Skeksis — they’re killing Geflings and drinking their “essence” to prolong their own lives — and then try to expose it. The action unfolds along multiple narrative lines and in different kingdoms. The intrepid adventuring of the small, mostly sweet Gelflings alternates with scenes of Skeksi court intrigue, with the treacherous and often delightfully petty bad guys fighting to seize power over the planet and exploit the eponymous crystal, a life and power source that is held suspended by chains in the Skeksis’ dungeon-like laboratory, like a prisoner being tortured on a rack.

Ultimately, though, in this kind of project those particulars of plot, character, and world-building often take a backseat to matters of “How the hell did they do that?” And that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay — it’s ultimately the real reason we watch sort kind of thing: for the Wow Factor.

Not to mention the How Factor — as in, how did they create that giant spider puppet and make it crawl up the wall and onto the ceiling over a character’s head in the same shot? And how did they make a bunch of the spiders assemble into a mouth shape and speak? And how did they make those pillbug creatures crawl across the floor of that throne room and curl up to form spheres, which then integrate themselves into the “feet” of an ornate carriage to serve as wheels? And how did they create that gigantic library set that looks to be hundreds of feet long and another hundred feet tall, with puppets standing or walking on various levels and staircases?

The answer in most cases would be “with computers,” but not in this project. Although there’s some obvious CGI work in the landscape shots, and digital compositing to put different layers of an image together and make them seem like they’re all existing in the same space, the Henson Company prides itself on doing practical effects whenever possible, and creating illusions through camerawork, editing, and the idiosyncratic choices of the performers. And that’s what you get here, for the most part. It’s the old sawing-a-lady-in-half trick, the escape-from-the-water-tank trick, the juggle-chainsaws-while-riding-a-unicycle trick, plus contortionists, mimes, acrobats, origami experts, action painters, synchronized dancers, all rolled into a single production, with puppets.

The voices behind those puppets come courtesy of a formidable cast that includes but is not limited to: Jason Isaacs, Benedict Wong, Taron Egerton, Nathalie Emmanuel, Helena Bonham-Carter, Awkwafina, Natalie Dormer, Lena Headey, Anya Taylor-Joy, Andy Samberg, Mark Strong, Simon Pegg, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Toby Jones, Eddie Izzard, Mark Hamill, Sigourney Weaver (as the narrator), and Victor Yerrid (as Hup, the character I singled out above). But it seems wrong not to also mention the puppeteers who perform the characters’ motions, because puppeteering is also a form of acting, with just as many expressive possibilities, though with different restrictions. Therefore: Alice Dinnean, Beccy Henderson, Neil Sterenberg, Warrick Brownlow-Pike, Dave Chapman, Kevin Clash (who recently returned to puppeteering after resigning from Sesame Street in 2012 following sexual-abuse allegations, all since dismissed), Damian Farrell, Louise Gold, and Yerrid again. (Some, though not many, of the puppeteers also perform their characters’ voices.)

The sound design — another army; IMDb lists 40 names — is equally impressive. This a series that benefits from being watched with good headphones. Just as the visuals often pack the frame with bits of busyness that aren’t germane to the main action and that you only notice on second viewing — such as the out-of-focus forest creatures in the background of outdoor shots, or the way the backpieces of some of the Skeksis’s costumes are made from the exoskeletons of insects — the sound often buries small details in the mix, such as the creaking of trees, the trickle of water, or snatches of distant conversation.

I suppose if pressed I would admit that not every scene in Age of Resistance is necessary to the narrative, or that not every scene needs to be as long as it is, but if you asked me to say which ones, I’d have to confess that you were asking the wrong person. It’s like asking Cookie Monster if there is such a thing as too many cookies. Age of Resistance is like an immense, ten-hour magic show, engrossing down to the very last wondrous detail. This is an altogether staggering artistic achievement, and a joyful continuation of the Henson tradition.

The Dark Crystal Prequel Series Is a Staggering Achievement