TV REVIEW – ‘THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE (2019 MINISERIES)

The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were flops when they hit theaters. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest tragedies of cinema. Their failures were very emotionally trying for Jim Henson, who I consider to be the greatest amateur storyteller of the 20th century. The use of the word “amateur” may be confusing here, if one does not know the true meaning of the word. It is a French word derived from “amour”, which, as most of us know, means “love.” An amateur is someone who does something because they love it, regardless of whether they make money for their work. Yes, Jim made a lot of money for his work, but he was an amateur until the day he died: unspoiled by jadedness or compromising his vision. And his vision was truly great; he was an exemplar of imagination and a champion of wonder. I am a big Jim Henson fan, and that shirt with two wonky Muppet eyes on it and the words “I Appreciate The Muppets On A Much Deeper Level Than You” beneath them was made with me in mind. I am also a Jim Henson purist. The Muppet movies made after Jim Henson’s death? Most of them need to burn and be forgotten. The Muppet Christmas Carol can stay, and which tv shows are in my head canon is highly parsed. What I am saying is, I am about the give The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance some very high praise, and I am not just some fan of any work of a Jim Henson property that gets put out there.  Having said that, let’s get back to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

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For those who haven’t seen The Dark Crystal, some background is in order. In the later stages of Jim Henson’s career, he delved into his interest in folklore and fairy-tales. From this sprung the TV miniseries “The Storyteller”, and the movies Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. If even one of these you have not seen, you should rectify that. The Dark Crystal is a highly Campbellian modern fairy-tale, set in a fictional land called Thra. In it, a race of evil reptilian bird creatures called Skeksis rule a dying land, unnaturally extending their lives with the power of the Dark Crystal, a source of life for the land that was corrupted when it cracked, leaving a single shard missing. Far away, another race, the Mystics, sense that it is time to fix the crystal. They send Jen, the last of the Gelflings, another race that was destroyed by the Skeksis, to go find the shard and heal the Dark Crystal. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a prequel miniseries to this story, available on Netflix. It tells the tale of how the Gelflings, who thought the Skeksis to benevolent rulers, discovered their treachery, and mounted a resistance to try and end the Skeksis’ tyranny. It is perfect.

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There are many pitfalls awaiting a prequel. Since viewers already know how the story ends, it is very important to make the journey there even more worthwhile, even more than for a sequel, which already suffers from a lack of novelty. Fan service is tempting, but takes up space that needs to be filled with new compelling characters, locations, and in the case of stories featuring fictional worlds, world building on cultures, creatures, and history. The prequel needs to have moments that are emotionally resonant on their own merits. Shoving unnecessary characters from the original in will not give viewers the payoff you hope it will.  It may seem like the point of the prequel is to bring about the things that the viewer knew from the original, but it isn’t. A good prequel shows the viewer that there are things they didn’t know that they didn’t know. Age of Resistance accomplishes this in spades. It does not portray the Gelflings as a monolithic race destined for a destruction we know is coming, but as a diverse people with multiple cultures and different attitudes and views, spread across an array of biomes. It does not end with the birth of Jen. It does not make fanfare of the reappearance of Skeksis or Mystics from the original. In fact, it doesn’t highlight their appearance at all; they often blend into a group including Skeksis and Mystics that do not appear in The Dark Crystal. Both these races are extremely long lived: why are these new characters not in the original? We didn’t know that we didn’t know it, but we need to find out now. Much is made of the history and current situations of the Arathim, a spider race that we do not know from The Dark Crystal and do nothing to directly answer important questions about it. The Arathim are their own story; a story that succeeds on its own merits. That does not mean that Age of Resistance does not do its job of delving into the history that brings us to the beginning of The Dark Crystal. We learn more about the sorceress Ogra, the arrival of the Darkening that leads to Thra’s desolate state, and the series of events spurned by the Skeksis’ fear of death that lead to the stealing of essence and eventually the genocide of the Gelflings.

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In creating a prequel, the most difficult thing is chasing the high of the feeling people got from the original’s tone. This has most notably plagued Star Wars. The Sequel Trilogy is pretty tonally close to the Original Trilogy, but something isn’t quite right, and the Prequel Trilogy does not seem tonally related to the Orig Trig at all. Age of Resistance feels like it was crafted by Jim Henson himself in the same pre-production as the original film. Seriously, this series is spot on, and I have never seen an extension of a franchise so long after the original that was so incredibly faithful as this. The original puppets were taken out of the archive to be recreated as accurately as possible. Some things, like the Garthim, were actually made more poorly than needed so they did not look starkly different from their counterparts in the lower tech, lower budget movie. The CGI is very good, very tasteful, and primarily used when needed, in order to not take the series away from the organic feel of the original. The world looks like a more living version of the dying Thra, and while more magical to reflect that higher state of life, the magic is not ramped-up to take the genre into the realm of a hokey high fantasy. If Jim Henson were alive to make this, I have doubts that it would turn out any different.

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The Bottom Line:
Of course, like everything, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance won’t be for everyone. It’s a puppet show with no real people for the puppet characters to play off. If not animatronic, and no puppets in this show are, puppets have still faces with a limited emotional range. That will make connecting to the characters hard for some. If this is you, you probably knew that before you started reading. While the CGI is very good, and the seams between it and the real background are very well covered, they aren’t undetectable. Some of it is quite obvious, which will be a turn off for some. But if you are a fan of the fantasy genre, and those two things don’t set you back, I would say this is a must watch, doubly so for any Jim Henson fan. – 9.0/10

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-Benjamin Harter
Staff Writer: Nerd Nation Magazine

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