The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (A Review)

09/08/2019

I’m going to preface this review by stating that I am a HUGE fan of the original movie The Dark Crystal (1982). Like many Dark Crystal fans, when I heard they were making a prequel to one of the most beloved movies of my childhood, I felt a mixture of excitement and skepticism. I am not a fan of CG. The thing I loved the most about Jim Henson movies like the Dark Crystal or Labyrinth was the charm and beauty of the practical effects and puppetry, and I did not want to see that sullied with flashy modern computer animation.

[NOTE: I tried my best to avoid revealing major spoilers, but there was no way to review each episode and not have at least a few spoilers, so please watch the series first before reading this review.]

Then the first trailer came out…

and I was very, very worried. Yes, there is fantastic puppetry, once again designed with concept art provided by Brian Froud (as well as Toby Froud), but there also appeared to be an overabundance of CG. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know Jim Henson used digital effects, even back in the day (such as the CG owl during the opening credits of Labyrinth), and I’m sure, were he alive and making movies today, he might have eventually gone full George Lucas. I just feel like a heavy CG aesthetic doesn’t work for the Dark Crystal. The original movie, admittedly, was rather light on story and very heavy on atmosphere, and my hopes for this new series was that the story would be more fleshed-out, but that the whimsical atmosphere would be maintained, and by the looks of this trailer, I had my doubts.

But, before I do too much grumbling, I am aware of some limitations and can be forgiving. This series has been in pre-production hell for over seven years. Netflix probably couldn’t afford to give them the sort of budget (adjusted for inflation) that the original movie had, and the series producers are trying to build a MUCH bigger world. I am aware of this, so I will cut them a little slack. At the end of the day, I’ll forgive the overabundance of crappy CG as long as the series delivers a good story.

Be aware; this review will contain a LOT of nitpicking. It doesn’t mean I dislike the show, but I am a fantasy writer, so there are some things I can’t ignore and will therefore critique.

So, let’s begin with episode one. It was good, not great. The tree of exposition was annoying, some of the dialogue felt forced, but at least all the characters were likable (well, the ones that were meant to be liked). There was WAY more CG than I wanted to see. WAY more.

With episode two, I noticed that the Chamberlin, who used to be characterized by the mmmMMmm sound he always made in the original 1982 movie, has dialed back that annoying trait. Thank god. They use it sparingly now. His character is more developed and more of a schemer. He was always a slimy schemer, but I like that the prequel has taken that up a notch. One thing I am very glad to see is that this series is not pulling any punches. The original Dark Crystal could get dark at times, and this series has not tried to tone down the grittier aspects of the world of Thra. I don’t want to spoil things by getting into too many specifics, but we do see murder, torture, and implied mutilation. Sweet!

By episode three, I am forming a stronger opinion on the characters and the atmosphere. The most important aspect of a story is its characters, and I am so happy to say that I love them all. You like the characters you’re supposed to like, and some of the characters that seemed two-dimensional at the start begin to develop and become more interesting. As for atmosphere, while the original Dark Crystal could be dark and mysterious at times, it was still a Jim Henson production, which meant there were always moments of lighthearted fun and charm sprinkled in to break up the tension, and, yes, we still get that. There are several moments when the puppet characters are simply there to remind you that they’re damn cute and that not everything in this danger-filled world is quite so bad. I do have a gripe about the “crystal of exposition.” I feel like that writing could have been better, but overall, I am warming up to the series.

With episode four, I have to take a moment to complain that often the characters are too quick to swallow some very obvious lies. Are the Gelfling supposed to be this damn naive? It kind of jangles with my suspension of disbelief, but I suppose for the sake of the plot everyone falls for lies very easily. Also, the Skeksis have a habit of plotting and scheming right in front of all the Podlings – like, aren’t you afraid they’re going to give away all your secrets? They spend so much time panicking that their evil deeds will be revealed, yet talk at the top of their lungs in front of their servants all day. I’m waiting to see if this comes back to bite them in the ass in later episodes (Update: it doesn’t). I dislike when characters have to be stupid to progress a plot, and there’s a bit too much of that for my liking. Other than that, more great development of secondary characters and the introduction of some exciting new characters such as the Skeksis, Hunter. I have to say that some of the effects at the end of this episode were disappointing. There was great puppetry work, but then the Hunter would run up the trees doing all sorts of acrobatics, all in very animated looking CG, and it really takes you out of the story when one moment you’re seeing puppets duking it out and the next you get this ridiculously jarring animation. It is not a seamless blend. Save the CG for the background guys.

Episode five is where the pacing really begins to pick up. Don’t get me wrong, I never felt the pacing to be slow, but when it starts to kick it up a notch, you certainly notice. This is the episode where all the introduced characters finally learn each other’s stories and come together for their common cause. There’s more good development for secondary characters and several tense moments and an action-packed chase scene. There were a few issues. You see several characters breaking into the Skeksis castle to free a prisoner, but you don’t see them free that prisoner or how they escaped. Eventually, they all show up later to save the main protagonist, and I kept hoping I’d get some retrospective flashback as to how they broke out of the castle, but it never happened. Hopefully next episode or I’ll feel like I got cheated out of what might have been an exciting scene. Also, these heroes that save the protagonist show up out of nowhere and land on the roof of a high-speed carriage…how? Did they teleport? That carriage was moving faster than a landstrider. How did they go from trapped in the castle to magically appearing on the roof of a high-speed vehicle? My husband’s explanation is “Wings.” Well, fine…I guess that could work. Speaking of landstriders – they’re all CG, and it’s pissing me off. In the 1982 movie, they had actors on stilts wearing suits, and it looked great. I guess actors aren’t fast enough? But even for the closeups, the landstriders are always CG now. Come on, guys! Couldn’t you give a stilt-walker a job? I bet Toby Froud would have done it for free! Also, there’s Gelfling blood, which I wasn’t expecting, but was pleasantly suprised to see. In the 1982 movie (and if you’re a fan of the Dark Crystal universe this shouldn’t be a spoiler) Kira gets stabbed, but we don’t see any blood, because, ya know, PG. In this series, which is also PG, we actually get to see some blood, and my sadistic little heart approves. And if anyone wants to complain that this series is too mature for children, the original Dark Crystal wasn’t strictly meant to be a children’s movie. Jim Henson wanted his movies to be enjoyed by people of ALL ages, not just small children. I highly recommend you watch Defuntland’s 6-part documentary on Jim Henson to get a better idea of his artistic vision. Also, if you’ve ever taken your kid to a PG-13 Marvel movie, you can just sit down and be quiet about the Dark Crystal.

Episode six evokes one word – RUSHED. This episode rushed a lot of things. The first thing they’re rushing is character relationships. Deet and Brea are besties now. How? Why? They just met five minutes ago in the dream space, and that’s the extent of their knowing each other. But, ya know, besties now I guess. Also, the show is implying a love triangle between Deet, Rian, and Hup. I think they’ve done a sufficient job of conveying why Hup might have a crush on Deet, but there’s no good reason why Deet and Rian should be crushing on each other so soon. Rian’s girlfriend just barely died, and Deet’s only briefly met Rian a couple of times before this point, and there wasn’t much depth to their interactions, so the idea of there being a romantic connection feels rushed. Another thing that happened way too quickly was the spreading of information. The Skeksis secrets are now out, and one moment, our heroes are telling the paladins to spread the word, and in the next scene, the Chamberlin is getting attacked by the Stonewood Gelfling village. How the hell did they find out so fast? A brief montage of the Gelflings spreading the words would have helped, or some way to convey the passage of time, but nope. One scene everyone finds out, and the next everyone just knows and acts accordingly. Now, as I mentioned with the last episode, there was a prisoner rescued from the castle – off-screen. We never get a flashback on how they did that, and AGAIN we have an “it happens off-screen” moment. The Skeksis apparently have a battle with dozens of their armed Gelfling guards and win, but we don’t see this. I’m sorry, but I NEED to see a dozen Skeksis wrecking the shit of some armed Gelflings. Like, how did this battle go down? WE DON’T KNOW! WE’LL NEVER KNOW! THEY DIDN’T SHOW IT TO US! Is this a budget constraint thing? Did they not have the money to film these scenes? This is a fantasy movie. You don’t skimp out on battles and exciting escape scenes! That’s the meat and potatoes of good fantasy, and we’re just getting the empty broth. Another thing they rushed was a fight that was supposed to take place between Seladon and Fara. I got really pumped when they mentioned trial combat by air. Did we get it? No. Seladon just yanks Fara out of the air (from the ground) and in the words of my husband; “She went down like a bitch.” And that was the end of the fight. Don’t get me pumped for aerial combat and then not deliver! My final complaint about this episode is another logistical issue. Lore, a lumbering rock monster with legs too tiny for his body, somehow manages to rescue our heroes from one of the Skeksis’s high-speed chariots by catching up with it and pulling it open…um…how? They show him on his way, and he is NOT moving very fast. Those tiny legs are NOT running fast enough to keep up with that chariot, but there he was, right in the nick of time. Somehow. This episode isn’t all bad. I like Seladon’s character development, and I’m grateful that they show the other Gelflings having a moment to grieve for the people they lost. Too many times when things are poorly written characters never believably process grief and often have an “Oh, well, they’re gone. Hey, look a shiny button!” kind of attitude, but I can appreciate the show writers giving these characters a moment to express believable emotions. My husband was appalled that there was a scene where we see a Skeksis taking a piss, but I had to remind him that in a Jim Henson production – muppets pee.

Episode seven was a vast improvement over episode six. For one thing, there’s a fight scene at the end involving the Hunter, that while not particularly dynamic, they didn’t skip over it. One of the Gelfling clans has a skirmish (of sorts) towards the end as well, and the scene was well shot. They’re still trying to push a romance between Deet and Rian that feels forced as hell. Boy, he’s sure getting over that dead girlfriend fast. Guess Gelflings just heal quicker. I’m on #TeamHup. Sadly, I predict Hup’s going to die some heroic death foreshadowed by his moment of self-doubt about his bravery in one of the earlier episodes. My writer senses are tingling. They’re also setting up a potential romance between Brea and Rek’yr, and honestly, I don’t mind. They have better chemistry than Deet and Rian and something more legitimate to bond over. Rek’yr’s clan worships death, and Brea has the super sads because she lost her mother. I guess grief makes you hot. This was a good episode that didn’t skimp on the action scenes, and what new character development is made, happens at a more measured pace. One thing that is bothering me is how the hell are the Hunter and the Heretic alive? It’s established that the other Skeksis are only alive because they’ve been leeching off the crystal or the essence of the Gelflings, but the Hunter rarely goes to the Crystal Castle, and the Heretic has been banished entirely, presumably for hundreds of years. What’s been keeping them alive this whole time?

Episode eight provides several new plot developments, but not all of them are good. The first thing that stood out to me about this episode, and it’s a problem throughout is logistics. Deet and Rian reach the home of the Gotten at high speed because Deet flew them on the breath of Thra, but how did the Hunter make it all the way to the castle while carrying Brea and being shot-through with arrows? Did he take Rek’yr’s flying creature the whole way back to the castle or did he walk? I have no idea, but the distance of the Crystal Castle to anything at any point in this story always seems to be a matter of what’s convenient for the story. For example, also in this episode, Aughra’s eye hitches a ride along with one of the Ascendancy’s mini servants to the Crystal Castle, seemingly within minutes as there’s no establishing a passage of time. When Aughra’s done spying, the little mini spider servant is shown bringing back her eye to where she was at the Stonewood village in literally the next scene. Is this castle next door? As in, twelve feet away? Sometimes it’s a journey that takes days from any other civilization and other times it seems so close you could throw a rock at it. This series never makes any effort to establish a passage of time. Logically, the events since this story began should have taken place over the course of many weeks or months, but due to establishing shots (or lack thereof), dialog, and scene jumps, it honestly feels like everything, since this story began, has taken place over the course of 3-4 days, which does not help with the feeling of being rushed from which this series suffers the most. I’m also not fond of the new plot development with the Ascendancy. Supposedly, the Ascendancy hates the Skeksis because the Skeksis once defeated them and threw them out of Grotten. How the hell did a handful of Skeksis beat an entire army of giant spiders who have mind-controlling mini-mes? It’s another one of these off-screen events like the time the Skeksis defeated an entire castle worth of armed guards, and we’re just supposed to believe these decrepit birds are such great ass-kickers. I’m sorry, but no, I don’t believe it. In the original movie, they were nothing without the Garthim doing all the fighting for them. Mostly they just screamed and acted scared at the mere sight of a Gelfling, but in the past, though the Skeksis are presented the same, we’re supposed to believe that they’re these amazing warriors too? Sorry, I’m not buying it. The Hunter, maybe, the General, possibly, but not the rest of them. Another problem I had with the Ascendancy was, why not just pull the damn things off off their faces? There are several scenes when the unafflicted characters don’t even bother to try pulling the smaller (and also likely much weaker) spiders off the faces of their friends and family. If I saw my friends and family covered in mind-controlling spiders, I’d try to pull the damn thing off or smoosh it or something! The Ascendancy are threatened by the Nurloc who are poisoned by the darkening and eating them, but why haven’t the Nurloc eaten all the Gotten Gelflings yet? Shouldn’t the Grotten Gelflings have all been wiped out by the poisoned Nurloc long before the Ascendancy arrived? They clearly established that the Nurloc were already starting to get sick from the darkening when Deet first left home, so Deet’s family should have been worm-food long before this episode, but…okay. One good thing was that there was a moment when we see a landstrider as an actual puppet for a brief close-up scene, but for distance shots, it was back to CG.

Episode nine was much better than episode eight. My theory about the Arathim/Ascendancy was right, and I like the fact that this episode doesn’t skip on a fight scene during another escape from the castle. Though, again, it makes it hard for me to believe the Skeksis were capable of defeating a castle full of guards or a bunch of Arathim in the past when they didn’t come out too great in this fight. They also mention even more Skeksis living outside the castle than just the Hunter and the Heretic, and I find that pretty exciting because, so far, I’ve enjoyed the inclusion of new Skeksis characters.

Episode ten, and the final episode of the season is a great conclusion for season one. We see an epic battle between the Gelfling and the Skeksis, several moments of brutal puppet-on-puppet violence, and quite a few character deaths. I approve. A good story needs high stakes, and this series has proven time and again to pull no punches. The series conclusion is satisfying but also ends on enough of a cliffhanger to leave an opening for a 2nd season. If the show is not greenlit for another season, you can probably mentally fill in the gaps as to how Thra ended up in the state it was in by the time of the events from the Dark Crystal movie. At the time of writing this, there is no news on whether or not Netflix has approved the show for a second season. I hear Netflix has been struggling financially this year, so I hope this show is successful enough to warrant another season and perhaps a bigger budget.

Overall, I’d give The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance 7.5/10. I know I nitpicked a lot of the issues with plot, pacing, and the CG, but the thing that saves this series is the characters and the puppetry. There is more CG than I’d like, but thankfully the puppetry that is there is dynamic, creative, and pleasing to the eye. The best part of this series is the characters, whether good or bad, you love the characters and are invested in their stories. Compelling characters can save any story, and that’s the biggest strength of this series. I think Age of Resistance is a worthy prequel to the 1982 movie, and though its got its flaws, it is well worth the watch, and I highly recommend it.

Leave a Reply