The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance makes CGI, puppetry a winning combo

Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal was a one-of-a-kind project when it hit theaters in 1982, offering a sprawling, fantastic adventure that blurred the line between the family-friendly fare his name was synonymous with and darker, more adult themes. What made it truly unique, however, was that its story was told with a cast composed entirely of puppet characters — something unusual (to say the least) for a mainstream theatrical release, and even more so for a film aimed at older audiences.

More than three decades later, the Netflix prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance occupies a similarly groundbreaking place in the media landscape, blowing up the lore of Henson’s original film into a 10-part saga and taking a deeper dive into the sociopolitical themes of its 1982 predecessor. Like the first film, it does so with a cast of puppet characters, but it ups the ante by using modern digital effects to enhance the puppet-filled world of Thra.

It’s a combination that shouldn’t work as well it does — particularly when it comes to such a nostalgia-fueled project like The Dark Crystal — but Age of Resistance makes the synergy of computer-generated imagery and practical puppetry feel surprisingly natural.

Taking a risk

At a time when the use of CGI is at the center of countless debates in and around Hollywood (from the proliferation of performance-capture acting to digital simulations of characters portrayed by deceased actors, among other hot-button topics), the decision to revisit any well-known film with new, CGI elements can be a bit of a gamble.

Whether it’s the widely panned digital additions to the original Star Wars trilogy or the less-controversial decision to swap practical, animatronic effects for CGI creatures in the recent blockbuster sequels to the Jurassic Park franchise, audiences have had a fickle relationship with projects that blend modern filmmaking techniques with beloved source material.

Go too heavy on CGI and the project becomes an over-polished imitation that doesn’t feel connected to the original material, while trying too hard to replicate the original can make a sequel feel anachronistic at best, and completely unnecessary in worse cases.

It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and yet, Age of Resistance makes it look easy — or at least, as easy as it can seem for a series that requires a team of master puppeteers, massive, intricate sets, and a seamless blend of CGI and practical effects.

Something old, something new

Much of the appeal of Henson’s 1982 film comes from how different it felt from everything else in theaters, and how ambitiously it bucked Hollywood conventions to bring its creators’ unique vision to the screen. Age of Resistance captures that lightning in a bottle a second time with similar achievements, both narrative and visual.

Not only does it expand on the mythology Henson created for The Dark Crystal, weaving it across multiple generations of characters inhabiting the magical world of Thra, but Age of Resistance does so with a story that develops slowly over 10 episodes rather than favoring the singular adventure of the original film.

The series fearlessly dives into the lore that was only touched upon in The Dark Crystal, and chronicles the events that led up to the film’s adventure by throwing the audience headfirst into the fantastic, layered history of Thra and trusting them to stay afloat.

That’s not the typical approach to a Hollywood sequel (or prequel, in this case), and it’s one of many ways Age of Resistance carves out a new niche for itself among projects that build on the popularity of much-earlier installments.

Age of Resistance is exceptionally clever with its use of CGI, which never seems employed to hide the limitations of puppetry, but rather to expand on the more fantastic elements of Thra. Its puppet characters are seemingly treated like live-action characters would be, with CGI adding more depth to the world around them, and rarely (if ever) appearing to have an effect on the performances the puppeteers bring to them. There’s a texture and depth to the puppets that feels untouched by digital elements, even as the exotic world they inhabit feels infinitely more so with the CGI touches applied to it.

That the puppet characters continue to feel so real is a testament to the series’ careful handling of CGI and the wisdom to know where it can bring more to the world and when it can only detract from what made the film successful.

Building a better Thra

Henson’s original film achieved so much in its creation of Thra, the world inhabited by the elf-like Gelflings, the evil Skeksis, and so many other colorful characters, particularly given its reliance on practical effects and physical puppetry. In some ways, the limitations of those effects are what made the puppet characters’ adventures in The Dark Crystal feel more personal: Their experiences had a sense of texture and physics the audience could relate to.

With Age of Resistance, their world feels exponentially larger and more dynamic thanks to smart use of CGI.

Early in the series, Deet — a Gelfling who lived her entire life up to that point in a subterranean kingdom — emerges from her underground world through the top of an enormous, pink-leafed tree situated high on the peak of a mountain. The scene is a memorable one, as it manages to both offer a bird’s-eye view of the world of Thra, with colossal mountain ranges and forested valleys as far as the eye can see, while simultaneously imparting just how much larger the character’s perception of that world has suddenly become.

The scene would have been difficult to pull off in a realistic, impactful way without CGI, which makes the leaves of the tree rustle in the wind and pushes the camera — and the audience’s perspective — out from Deet herself to the greater world she inhabits, offering the first indication of how far-reaching her journey will be.

Even the most expertly painted backdrop wouldn’t achieve the same effect as the CGI that makes Thra a living, ever-changing part of the story that’s about to unfold, and the scene offers one of the best examples of how Age of Resistance smartly makes use of the CG magic available to it.

Restoring balance

One of the major themes in both The Dark Crystal film and the Age of Resistance prequel series is the pursuit of balance and maintaining the natural order of things.

It’s fitting that this is also where Age of Resistance triumphs when it comes to mixing the old and the new — particularly when it comes to puppetry and CG effects. Rather than use the latter to hide the limits of the former (as so many Hollywood projects do), Age of Resistance makes its amazing puppetry the foundation that the digital elements build upon. In doing so, it makes the series feel like a natural extension of the original film and what it achieved both narratively and visually.

In the end, Age of Resistance offers a powerful reminder that it’s not the amount of CGI that can make or break a movie or TV project. When it comes to digital effects, even a middle-aged movie steeped in old-school aesthetics can benefit from some digital magic.

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