THE DARK CRYSTAL, Age of Resistance
A 'Must See' for Puppet Lovers
THE DARK CRYSTAL, Age of Resistance
If you enjoyed TV shows such as The Muppet Babies, movies such as The Labyrinth and The Never-Ending Story, you’ll love the 2019 Netflix series THE DARK CRYSTAL – age of resistance. What do these titles have in common? They all used some sort of animatronic in their casting. Animatronics refers to mechatronic puppets. They are a modern variant of the automaton and are often used for the portrayal of characters in films and in theme park attractions.
Before the term "animatronics" became common, they were usually referred to as "robots". Since then, robots have become known as more practical programmable machines that do not necessarily resemble living creatures. Animatronics is a multi-disciplinary field which integrates puppetry, anatomy and mechatronics. Animatronic figures can be implemented using both computer control and human control, including ‘teleoperation’. Motion actuators are often used to imitate muscle movements and create realistic motions in limbs. Figures are usually covered with body shells and flexible skins made of hard and soft plastic materials—and finished with details like colors, hair, feathers and other components to make the figure more lifelike.
I’m a creative-thinker. Any time I get the chance to appreciate the artistry of someone’s imagination, I’ll take that time to do so. I’d be remised if I didn’t (firstly) mention that none of the characters in the film I’m showcasing are based on humans or any other specific Earth creature. These are the types of characters (and creations) I fall in love with. I know you will too. Before its release, The Dark Crystal was billed as the first live-action film without any human beings on screen, and a "showcase for cutting-edge animatronics".
Let’s start from the beginning.
Before Netflix took on the challenge of creating a prequel to The Dark Crystal, let’s talk about the 1982 original.
The Dark Crystal was a puppet-animated dark fantasy film directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. It stars the voices of Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw, Percy Edwards, and Barry Dennen. The film was produced by ITC Entertainment and The Jim Henson Company and distributed by Universal Pictures. The plot revolves around Jen, a Gelfling on a quest to restore balance to the world of Thra and overthrow the ruling Skeksis by restoring a powerful broken Crystal. It was marketed as a family film, but was notably darker than the creators' previous material. The animatronics used in the film were considered groundbreaking for its time, with most creatures, like the Gelflings, requiring around four puppeteers to achieve full manipulation. The primary concept artist was fantasy illustrator Brian Froud, famous for his distinctive fairy and dwarf designs. Froud also collaborated with Henson for his next project, the 1986 film Labyrinth.
Just in case you missed it (…or you’re not old enough to have enjoyed it), The Labyrinth was a 1986 musical fantasy film directed by Jim Henson, with George Lucas as executive producer, based upon conceptual designs by Brian Froud. It revolves around 16-year-old Sarah's (Jennifer Connelly) quest to reach the center of an enormous otherworldly maze to rescue her infant brother Toby, whom Sarah wished away to Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie). Most of the film's significant characters, apart from Bowie and Connelly, are played by puppets produced by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The film started as collaboration between Henson and Froud following their previous collaboration The Dark Crystal in 1982.
Fast-forward to 2019. A prequel to The Dark Crystal released as a series on NETFLIX. The new series used updated variations on techniques Jim Henson used in his 1982 original (even bringing back master designer Brian Froud). The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is an American fantasy streaming television series produced by Netflix and The Jim Henson Company. It is a prequel to the 1982 Jim Henson film The Dark Crystal that explores the world of Thra created for the original film. It follows the story of three Gelflings: Rian, Deet, and Brea, as they journey together on a quest to unite the Gelfling clans to rise against the tyrannical Skeksis and save their planet Thra from a destructive blight known as the Darkening. The series premiered on August 30, 2019, to critical acclaim. In September 2020, (unfortunately) it was announced that the series had been cancelled after one season.
The puppets were fabricated in early 2017 in Jim Henson's Creature Shop in Los Angeles, then exported to Langley Studios just outside London, with The Muppets veteran Dave Goelz and The Dark Crystal's concept artist Brian Froud participating in performing and designing the characters. Aside from Froud's new sketches, the original film's tie-in book, The World of the Dark Crystal, was used as a reference point. Other sources of inspiration in building the world of Thra included Game of Thrones and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
According to design supervisor Toby Froud,
"The show makes use of 20 principal puppets, with an additional 90 for secondary roles."
Unlike the original film, the Gelfling puppets require only two puppeteers, as opposed to four in The Dark Crystal, thus permitting greater freedom of movement. Also, while the animatronic components of the original film's Gelfling puppets were controlled via cables, the mechanical parts of the new Gelflings were remotely operated via a modified Wii controller.
In the first episode, a millennium has passed since Mother Aughra entrusted the Crystal of Truth to the alien Skeksis, who siphon its life force to extend their own lives while proclaiming themselves Thra's rulers. The corrupted Dark Crystal begins to cease giving its energy away, with the Skeksis emperor skekSo ordering his scientist skekTek to devise an alternative means. skekTek accidentally learns to use the Crystal to siphon other beings' essence for the Skeksis to reinvigorate themselves. He abducts the Crystal Guard Gelfling Mira during her search for an Arathim in the catacombs, resulting in her death as the Skeksis feast on most of her essence. This act is witnessed by Mira's boyfriend Rian, who escapes them. Meanwhile, Princess Brea of Ha'rar uncovers a symbol after questioning the Skeksis' laws following Ha'rar's tribute to skekOk and skekLach. Another Gelfling named Deet, of the Grottan Clan, embarks on a mission to save Thra from being consumed by the Darkening, a corruption building up within the Crystal.
Episode #2 - As Aughra awakens upon sensing a calamity on Thra, Deet experiences the surface before gaining a traveling companion in the Podling Hup as they journey to Ha'rar. Brea visits Elder Cadia of the Sifa Clan for help deciphering the symbol's meaning. Cadia instead attempts to wipe out Brea's memory by having her drink powdered nulroot, only for her to switch the drinks at the last second. Cadia's apprentice Onica offers her services if Brea brings her the All-Maudra’s brightest jewel by tomorrow night. Back in the Castle, labeled a murderer, Rian uses dreamfasting to reveal Mira's death to their friend Gurjin. The two then resolve to steal the vial of Mira's essence as additional proof of the Skeksis' misdeeds. The two manage to acquire it when skekTek catches skekSil stealing it, but the two Skeksis capture Gurjin while Rian escapes with the vial. skekTek reports this to skekSo before skekSil spins the story so that The Scientist is blamed for Rian's escape. The Crystal Guard are sent to apprehend Rian, and skekTek is subjected to the eye-gouging Peeper Beetle as punishment.
Episode #3 - Deet and Hup find themselves unwelcome in the Stonewood clan's village, with Hup arrested while defending Deet's honor. Deet is denied from seeing Maudra Fara to appeal for Hup's freedom, while Fara and Ordon attempt to capture Rian before he escapes them. Rian and Deet encounter each other after nightfall, with the latter inspired by Rian with a scheme to free Hup. Meanwhile, as skekSil provides skekTek with Gruenak assistants, Aughra arrives at the Castle and confronts the Skeksis, who banish her from their domain, but not before she learns of the Crystal's corruption. Brea is sent to join the Order of Lesser Service for one year as punishment for the diplomatic incident she caused by wiping out Cadia's memories. Brea escapes the Order while they are cleaning Podlings, encountering Tavra who reveals that their mother sent her on a mission to retrieve Rian. She then returns to Ha'rar and acquires her mother's brightest jewel for Onica—an Unamoth chrysalis. With Onica's guidance, Brea asks the chrysalis for answers and follows the newly emerged Unamoth to a secret passage beneath her mother's throne.
Episode #4 - Deet frees Hup from the Stonewood clan's dungeon by pretending to be a monster that scares the guards. In Ha'rar, Brea attempts to decipher the hidden chamber's riddle before realizing it reveals the Gelfling clan hierarchy to be false while awakening a stone giant that plays a recording on its body. The voice introduces the giant as Lore who will guide her to the Circle of the Suns, attracting the attention of Brea's oldest sister Seladon. Meanwhile, Aughra encounters urVa The Archer who advises her to learn from Thra to restore her connection to the planet. At the same time, the Skeksis' banquet in honor of skekEkt's return turns sour when skekSo replaces skekSil as his advisor with skekVar. This leads skekSil to summon skekMal The Hunter to retrieve Rian. As skekVar and skekZok leave to recruit "volunteers" from the Gelfling tribes, skekMal finds Rian after he dreamfasted the truth to Tavra, Ordon, Gurjin's sister Naia, and Kylan. skekMal survives Ordon's sacrificial attempt to stop him with ravenous Gobbles and then runs off with Rian as Deet and Hup watch.
Episode #5 - skekSil convinces skekMal to let him take Rian back to the Castle, only for Rian to be saved by Naia and a freed Gurjin while Tavra remains in the Castle. In Ha'rar, skekVar and skekZok gather seven volunteers under the guise of recruits for a new Arathim rebellion. The All-Maudra is convinced by Brea to meet Lore, while Seladon encounters Hup and a disguised Deet who have infiltrated the Citadel. At the Sanctuary Tree, Aughra eventually realizes that she must listen to Thra to hear its song again and succeeds, with Rian's group, the All-Maudra, Brea, Deet, and Seladon all ending up in the Dream Space while dreamfasting. While forced to send Seladon back the physical world due to her blind faith in the Skeksis, Aughra reveals their actions against Thra and rallies the gathered Gelflings to stop them. The All-Maudra confronts the Skeksis and is killed by skekVar, with a bereaved Seladon allowing the Skeksis to take the "traitors" away as her first decree as the new All-Maudra.
Episode #6 - skekVar and skekZok are impeded by Rian's group while en route to the Castle, losing their prisoners when Lore catches up to their carriage. Rian convinces the Paladins to spread the word of the Skeksis' misdeeds. The Crystal Guard stages a rebellion that is swiftly put down: they are caged and drained, with Tavra among the captured. The Skeksis decide to attack Stone-in-the-Wood after an astonished skekSil returns and reveals that the Stonewood clan have turned on them. urVa learns from Aughra that his destiny is to confront skekMal, whose defeat requires a sacrifice. In Ha'rar, after sending the Living Crown pieces to the other Maudras to gather for her coronation and cremating her mother for "treason," Seladon finds herself challenged by Fara for the All-Maudra title. Seladon responds by renouncing the Living Crown and donning Skeksis-inspired regalia while declaring herself All-Maudra by the Skeksis' will. Fara and Laesid leave while the others bow to her. At the Crystal Sea after a night of mourning, Rian's group are met by a Dousan clansman named Rek'yr who takes Rian, Deet, Brea, and Hup to the Circle of the Suns while the others leave to rally their clans.
Episode #7 - Rian's group reach the Circle of the Suns where they encounter a Skeksis named skekGra The Heretic and his Mystic counterpart urGoh The Wanderer. skekGra and urGoh gradually reveal their races' origins as the splintered urSkeks with the Darkening a byproduct of the Crystal's corruption. They announce their desire to merge back into their unified form GraGoh and need the Gelflings' help in using the Dual Glaive (a legendary weapon) to end the Skeksis' rule. Before Rian's group can set out to the Caves of Grot where the Dual Glaive is located, they are attacked by skekMal who escapes with Brea after being mortally wounded by his Mystic counterpart urVa. Meanwhile, keeping secret the fact that the Caves have been compromised by the Darkening, skekSo wins the Arathim Ascendancy's services by giving them back their ancestral home if they help put down the Stonewood Gelflings. The Ascendancy requests Tavra as a host for their mind-controlling Arathim, which take over the Stonewood as they are preparing for battle and have them march to the Castle.
Episode #8 - Rian and Deet travel through the Breath of Thra, thermal vents from the planet's core, to reach the Caves of Grot to find the Dual Glaive, but find the caves taken over by the Arathim with Deet's family and Maudra Argot among those under their control. When the Arathim are attacked by the berserk Nurloc and Rian and Deet reveal to them the Skeksis tricked them, Rian and Deet convince the Ascendancy to join them against the Skeksis while getting them and Deet's family to the surface. Before the Nurloc destroy it, the Sanctuary Tree gives Deet the power to extract the Darkening from others. Meanwhile after ignoring Aughra's attempt to reason with her, Seladon travels to the Castle to beseech the Skeksis for mercy to the Stonewood. But she instead learns the truth from Skeksis themselves and is captured as a mortally-wounded skekMal returns to the Castle with Brea. The Skeksis panic as skekSo orders for skekMal's life to be saved at any cost and Aughra states that she now knows what she must do.
Episode #9 - Rian and Deet acquire one half of the Dual Glaive from Maudra Argot, who hid it within her walking stick. They learn that Ordon had hidden the other half at Stone-in-the-Wood's crucible. At the Castle, skekOk suggests having the other Skeksis recalled to the castle. Aughra offers her essence to revive skekMal in exchange for the captive Gelflings' freedom. Though skekSo accepts, he orders skekVar to kill the prisoners before they leave. Now permanently joined with the Ascendancy, Tavra reveals the Arathim-Gelfling alliance and injures skekVar before being fatally wounded by skekSil. He wins skekVar's loyalty by giving him a vial of essence to heal himself with. When it appears that Aughra's essence was not enough to prevent skekMal's death, skekSil proposes to the other Skeksis that they should create an obedient army from Arathim corpses. Tavra later dies in the presence of her sisters. Rian reunites the Dual Glaive and issues a call to arms, calling all Geflings to meet at Stone-in-the-Wood. Hearing through the Crystal and threatening retaliation, skekSo orders an attack at dawn to stop the Rebellion before it can begin.
Episode #10 - Rian and Deet are joined by Brea's group while waiting for the other clans' arrival. skekSo calls upon the Darkening before leading the Skeksis to battle, ordering skekTek to remain at the Castle to work on the new army. Once the Skeksis arrive, skekSil sets up skekVar to fail in his duel with Rian and covertly kills him as the battle commences. skekMal is revealed to be alive as he shatters the Dual Glaive, only to be killed for good when urVa jumps off from the Circle of Suns, causing Aughra to be reconstituted out of his crumbling body. While events in Stone-in-the-Wood unfold, skekTek kills the rebelling Gruenaks in a moment of frustrated rage. When the other clans arrive, skekSo unleashes the Darkening, which Deet rebounds to kill skekLach while the other Skeksis retreat. As Brea finds the lost shard of the Crystal in the Dual Glaive's broken hilt, Deet leaves the group in fear of her power. An inspired skekTek then grafts one of the dead Gruenaks with the Arathim corpse, with the Skeksis introduced to the newly animated Garthim.
In January of 2020, The Dark Crystal; Age of Resistance was nominated by the Critics’ Choice Television Awards for Best Animated Series. Some of its other accolades include winning the Primetime Emmy Awards, “Outstanding Children's Program” and winning the Visual Effects Society Awards, “Outstanding Special (Practical) Effects in a Photo’real or Animated Project".
Should you watch The Dark Crystal before NETFLIX’s ‘age of resistance’?
The 10-episode series is, after all, a prequel, set many years before the events of the film. So, no, there's no need to watch The Dark Crystal – whether for the first time, or the 21st – before settling in to enjoy Netflix's Age of Resistance.
My bottom line:
We are in a time of film and production when computer graphic integration (CGI) is becoming the dominant instrument of crafting otherworldly characters. It’s beautiful art as well, but there’s nothing that will keep your attention like a great series that features animatronic-based characters. 'The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance' is absolutely worth the watch for people who want to be awe-inspired by ‘STAGED PUPPETRY’. If you're a Jim Henson devotee, love animatronics and enjoy the general fantasy genre, then Age of Resistance offers up more than enough creativity and compelling storytelling to make you a believer.