Jim Henson was a master of entertainment: I’ll hear nothing to the contrary. The Muppets were a genuine delight and, no matter how much Oxford has ruined you, you know that’s true. No doubt you may also have seen the deliciously weird Labyrinth, complete with tight-clad David Bowie. Henson’s original 1982 Dark Crystal, however, seems always to have had less cultural traction: it’s a ‘cult-classic’ for sure but it was flawed even in Henson’s own eyes, and its praise and love in the public eye certainly don’t represent its groundbreaking nature.
Netflix’s decision to relaunch this IP, then, is perhaps surprising, but the swell of nostalgia that has so far surrounded it proves they might well be on the money. It’s a prequel rather than a remake, setting out to tread new ground (niftily escaping accusation of destroying childhoods). To be clear, it’s a great success: beautiful, binge-able and genuinely staggering. Its failings are evident, but really little more than splitting hairs.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more star-studded cast than is drawn together here. Overall, they’re extremely good. Taron Egerton, as one of the show’s leads, does start off a tad wooden, but anyone who has seen the original Dark Crystal knows that this is in keeping with its spirit. Genuine gems shine through. Awkwafina steals scenes as always, and Eddie Izzard’s brief appearance is extremely funny.
At a whopping 10 hours the series is expansive, but also greedy. Apparently drawing on Henson’s wider plans and writing, there’s a genuine depth to the world. It’s certainly not just fantasy copy-paste: while the early plot flirts with the predictable, there are some novel and exciting things at play here. Simultaneously, it’s effortlessly watchable. You don’t need to be a die-hard fan of the genre (read: as much of a colossal nerd as me) to lose yourself.
Now time for the criticism. It’s overly long, and consequently the plot meanders. I found myself, by episode 8 of 10, looking for some sense of conclusion. With the whispers of more content to come, could Netflix not have closed the book on a job well done, without stretching it thin?
It’s tonally that the issue of length really emerges. This is not a children’s show: Sesame Street it is not. The original was always praised for its dark and somber tone (if you saw it at all, it haunted your childhood nightmares), and here the prequel delivers in heaps. There are some genuinely shocking and upsetting scenes. Sure, it’s not exactly Tarantino, but be prepared for some surprises. Intertwined is perhaps a more traditional, soft tone (friendship is, after all, magic don’t-you-know), and some classic larger-than-life slapstick straight out of Henson’s playbook. This combination inevitably comes across as slightly odd. I suppose the critics will cry that this is the point, that the mix produces something both sweetly sincere and grippingly threatening. But for my money, the extraordinary length of the series causes too many flicks between tone. It’s all just a little bit jarring. Commit, as the series draws to a close, on which tone to side with.
The real victory here, however, is in form. Never have puppets looked so good, and so incredible believable. Of course there’s CGI at work here, but the meat of the show is effortlessly tangible. It’s a refreshing return to the cinema of real things, a move that Jackson and Weta Workshop championed then so ruthlessly abandoned (to universal criticism). We can only hope that Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance ushers in a new age of physical effects. Henson, I have no doubt, would be proud.