In a far-flung world not so dissimilar from our own, disparate peoples from isolated kingdoms must overcome their differences if they hope to defeat powerful, unified, evil forces and save themselves–and their world–from destruction. That’s a solid if rather general fantasy story synopsis. It’s so familiar in fact that it could apply to anything from classics like The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to contemporary fantasy favorites like Game of Thrones. So what’s the one thing that separates these iconic stories from the incredible tale told in Netflix’s new series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance? In a word: Puppets.
Netflix knows that this is the one aspect of their 10-episode fantasy series that’s going to make it or break it. It’s also impossible to separate the puppets and their miniature world from the late Jim Henson and his ground-breaking 1982 film The Dark Crystal or the superlative work by The Jim Henson Company that brings the denizens of the world of Thra to life, then and now. It just wouldn’t be the same without them; it wouldn’t be The Dark Crystal at all. So if you loved the original film and are anxious to see the puppet characters return, I’m happy to say that they’re better than ever, from the delightfully macabre and grotesque Skeksis, to the wonderfully sentient potato-like Podlings, to the heroic humanoid Gelfling. If you struggle to empathize with puppets but can find something to appreciate–like the remarkable technical prowess and artistry on display, the jaw-dropping production value, the compelling characterization and voice-cast performances–you’ll find this story is worth the journey. But if you opt to skip The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance altogether simply because of the puppet factor, I feel sorry for you; you’re missing out on one of the greatest fantasy stories of our time portrayed in a fashion that’s both a facet of a bygone era and a timeless manner of storytelling.
Theater, cinema, and television is all smoke, mirrors, and misdirection. Traditional actors dressed head to toe in costumes and make-up; puppets and the performances of puppeteers and voice actors; and motion-capture and performance-capture artists turned into comic book creations through a blend of live action and VFX wizardry; they’re all a variation on a theme, that of the trained actors and effects teams attempting to trick the eye and entertain the hearts and minds of the audiences. It’s suspension of disbelief whether you’re watching Shakespeare or Star Wars. If you allow yourself to be drawn into the world of Thra, you’ll experience a ride like no other. And this throwback to a heavily practical, tactile, and textured form of filmmaking is a welcome balm in this increasingly digital age.
Because of the high production quality and the advent of modern technology, you feel almost transported to the alien world of Thra thanks to the ability to see just about every detail in every scene. You can count the strands of hair in the luxurious locks of the Gelfling, squirm at the sight of the oozing pustules on the Skeksis Collector’s beaky nose, and be buoyed up by glee as the Podlings get all scrubbed up in the annual cleansing ritual, The Deterg. (Now’s a good a time as any after that pro-puppet rant to say that this review will be relatively spoiler–free since the story simply must be experienced for itself.) That’s the real magic of The Dark Crystal, the feeling that you can reach out and touch the characters and risk being pulled directly into their world. You just don’t get that same sense of weight, of gravity, of flesh and bone and dirt and stone, in even the most advanced CG creations. This show is something special and increasingly so because it’s a rare gem.