This may have been the problem 37 years ago, when the brilliant Muppet master Jim Henson and his colleagues poured their creative energies into a full-on fantasy film that took the lifelike movements of Henson’s art form and put them to use in a complex, otherworldly story that was a shade too frightening for a kid audience. Universal released “The Dark Crystal” in time for Christmas of 1982, where it struggled to find traction against “Tootsie,” “The Toy” and “Airplane II: The Sequel.” Critics admired its technical achievements but disliked the Tolkien-lite feel of it; parents steered clear; lunchboxes and other merchandise went unpurchased.
Fans, however, cared for “The Dark Crystal” in that tenderly obsessive way that only the truest fans will. They always hoped for more big-screen stories about the world of Thra and the tribes of wide-eyed Gelflings who defend it against the greedy, alligator/vulture-faced gang called the Skeksis. Efforts to make a sequel came and went, with various hang-ups and abandonment. Finally the right sort of sorcery occurred, illuminating the path to that which is desired by all niche projects: Netflix and its pots of gold.
Lo, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” arrives Friday — a wondrously realized, 10-episode prequel overseen by Lisa Henson, daughter of Jim and CEO of his namesake production house. Instantly captivating, expertly paced and thrillingly fun to watch, “Age of Resistance” checks off a number of boxes that viewers claim to seek in their next favorite TV show, especially that one desire I hear from readers again and again: Is there a show that will take me away from it all? Yes, this one.
To be clear, escapism is not the same as being a “mindless” watching experience. “Age of Resistance” can be as complicated or easy as the viewer wishes it to be, but, like all fantasy tales, it comes on fast and strong with a number of characters, plot threads and all sorts of creatures and cultures to sort through.
Unlike so many other sagas, however, the world of “The Dark Crystal” is ingeniously envisioned; I hope it’s not insulting to those who’ve envisioned it to compliment the pleasurable ease with which anyone can follow the story from the get-go, even those of us who are passive participants when it comes to learning names, following mythologies and comprehending new geography on a planet with three suns.
Set long before the events of the original film, “Age of Resistance” finds the ruling order of Skeksis (voiced by Andy Samberg, Awkwafina, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Keegan-Michael Key and more) in full plunder of Thra’s resources, with the three communities of native Gelflings in a state of fearful subservience, tithing whatever they have to their repulsive overlords.
The Skeksis rule because they long ago seized a giant crystal that kept Thra and its inhabitants in a state of harmony. Having sapped the crystal of most of its life-giving force, the Skeksis have now started sacrificing Gelflings to it, using the crystal to liquefy a Gelfling’s spirit, which they then gobble down in hopes of immortality. As the crystal’s ancient guardian, Aughra (Donna Kimball), awakens from a spell that the Skeksis put her under, a group of rebellious Gelflings (voiced by Taron Egerton, Nathalie Emmanuel and Anya Taylor-Joy, among others) must band together to restore the crystal and overthrow the Skeksis.
That’s a somewhat oversimplified summary (which is part of my job), but what it doesn’t convey is the absolute joy evident in every frame of “Age of Resistance,” where puppetry skills and computer-generated artistry combine to exult in seamless perfection. Muppet fans will surely recognize the intuitively expressive Henson style; others might admire the skill with which the writers balance simplicity (and humor) with the intensity and complexity of the plot. One thing popular culture has achieved since 1982 is to break down walls between adult and juvenile material, creating the sort of modern audience that “The Dark Crystal” didn’t initially find. (That said, it’s still not ideal for the youngest viewers in the house, for being occasionally scary and mildly violent.)
Buried not so deeply within the series are obvious metaphors that both address and stir current anxieties: The Skeksis are too greedy to realize they’re destroying the planet as the crystal begins its irreparable darkening — in other words, they deny climate change. (“This is what I do. I plant stories in ground, watch grow into truth,” one of the Skeksis brags.) Intentionally or not, “Age of Resistance” sports a number of bumper stickers on the back of its proverbial Subaru — “COEXIST” being the primary message, beautifully delivered.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (10 episodes) available for streaming Friday on Netflix.