It’s hard not to feel at times nostalgic for the golden age of practical effects. Sometime around the 1980s when special effects seemed, well, special instead of hollow computer-generated imagery that inspires little if any of the awe one sees nowadays. Those of a certain age can’t help but yearn to turn back the clock around thirty-plus years ago when technical wizards like the late puppetmaster Jim Henson ruled the screen with their marvelous creatures. Those seeking to return to such a bygone era will be pleased to know that Netflix’s prequel to Jim Henson’s dark fantasy cult classic The Dark Crystal (1982) acts as if the decades of CGI tomfoolery was all just a bad fever dream.
Oh sure, Age of Resistance uses some computer effects to brush out its surprisingly intricate fantasy world, but everything that can be made a puppet is made a puppet. There’s a technical craft at play throughout the ten hours of the season’s arc that can’t help but leave viewers transfixed. Every character is a puppet, with all the jerky movements that implies and yet the world is so well-developed, the characters so believable, that it’s almost never a distraction.
The world of Thra is in decline, as it is divided between two races: the evil bird-like Skeksis who pretend to be benevolent but are really abusing the power of a magic crystal to remain nigh immortal and the elfin Gelflings who are beginning to suspect the Skeksis aren’t as noble as they make themselves out to be after castle guard Rian (Taron Egerton) uncovers the Skeksis’ nefarious plot to suck the life essence from every Gelfling on the planet to stave off death.
It’s tempting to say at first glance Age of Resistance is a prime example of Netflix overkill. Watching puppets onscreen for the duration of a movie is one thing, but it’s another when an entire season is to be endured. Luckily, the technical prowess of the creature designs alleviate any sense that one might be taken out of the experience. The Gelflings display every range of emotion you could expect from a human actor from bemusement, anger, surprise, and grief in the season’s more somber moments and every decadent and depraved act from the Skesis is as equally enthralling as it is shocking.
The world Age of Resistance builds is as intricate as anything seen in Lord of the Rings, with various classes and the political dynamics at play. The most notable are the Podlings: a race of creatures that have their own unique language and have the temperments of hyperactive children, and who have the unfortunate luck of being stuck in a servile role to the Skeksis.
It would have been very easy for something like Age of Resistance to become bloated to the point of making watching the original film seem ancillary, and indeed there is a ton of lore that is crammed into the span of ten episodes as well as juggling all of the characters. There’s the wide-eyed Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel), brave and smart Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the wise and decrepit Aughra (Donna Kimball) rounding out the heroes while on the other side is a whole host of Skeksis, chief among them the despicable Emperor (Jason Isaacs), shrill Scientist (Mark Hamill), and the sycophantic Chamberlain (Simon Pegg). Out of all the Skeksis, Pegg truly shines and embraces the worminess inherent in a character that’s a delightful throwback to the scheming second-in-commands that were common among the 80s villainous landscape.
If anything, this prequel shows that it’s possible to have a series based on puppets with a rich, complex mythology that packs every episode with the type of fanciful whimsy and creativity that was once the norm instead of the exception. Is there longevity in such a concept, and without falling in to the rabbit hole of the complexity and the many characters to keep track of? It’s hard to say, but Age of Resistance in one of the stronger debuts Netflix has seen in quite some time and sets a high watermark for the technical work that was put into it.