Once upon a time, Jim Henson found himself stranded in the middle of a snowstorm. To pass the time, the Muppet Show creator began to dream up an elaborate story of mystics, monsters, and two different races — a vulturelike aristocracy called the Skeksis and a kindhearted, elfin people known as Gelflings — battling over the fate of their planet, Thra. By the time the storm ended, Henson had a 25-page movie treatment. He called it The Dark Crystal. The pioneering puppeteer was prepared to stake his whole career and his relationship with his No. 1 benefactor, Lord Lew Grade, to make this movie a reality.
When his passion project, co-directed with Frank Oz, finally hit theaters in 1982, audiences were confused: Were we dropped into the middle of a story, and what, exactly, was going on here? Why was everything so visually dark and foreboding? And why was the man who gave the world Kermit the Frog telling such an intense, too-scary-for-kids tale of corruption, eco-doom and genocide? Henson was heartbroken. But over the years, the movie began to find an audience. If you were of a certain age and fantasy-obsessed demographic, you may have watched The Dark Crystal a million times and/or worn out several VHS tapes of the film. It became a shared secret, a bona fide cult movie. Its fans have been clamoring for a sequel for decades.
Thanks to Netflix, they’re about to get their wish. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a 10-episode prequel series that premieres on the streaming service on August 30th, not only revisits the late Henson’s fantasy world but expands upon it to an impressive degree. Set long before the 1982 film’s story, Age of Resistance follows three young Gelflings — a royal guard, a scholarly princess, and a member of an agrarian clan living underground — as they learn that their Skeksis masters are using the life-giving totem of the series title to gain immortality. They need to expose the plan in time, or else. And with characters voiced by Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Andy Samberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey, Awkwafina, Sigourney Weaver, Alicia Vikander and many, many others, the new project has a serious A-list pedigree.
For years, Jim Henson Co. CEO Lisa Henson had been trying to get a new Dark Crystal off the ground. “I remember going on set as a child and seeing it develop over the years, seeing the puppets being built,” she recalls. “It was so different from what people expected from my dad — and he was so proud of that.” Lisa knew the film was beloved by a small but passionate few, but it wasn’t until she “suddenly found myself talking to a roomful of people at Comic Con [in the mid ’00s] and there being tremendous excitement about another Crystal story” that the time seemed right to return to Thra. Samurai Jack creator Genddy Tartakovsky had begun working on a sequel in 2006, only to have financing fall through; the storyline inspired a graphic novel, The Power of the Dark Crystal. Other ideas came and went.
Then filmmaker Louis Leterrier — the French director behind The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk and the Clash of the Titans remake — took a meeting with Lisa Henson in 2011. His one question: “So what are you doing with The Dark Crystal?” He’d obsessed over what he called “this weird UFO of a movie” as a kid, seeing it endlessly in film clubs and on TV while growing up in Paris (“It was the first movie to scar me…but in a good way!”), and asked to take a crack at a film sequel. Meanwhile, Henson was developing an animated prequel series. When she pitched Netflix on the toon, execs asked, “Well, why can’t you do it like the original, with puppets?” The projects were combined. Writers Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews came on board as executive producers/showrunners. Leterrier spent six months filming a live-action chase scene as a test, and Netflix was sold.
The rest of the industry, however, remained slightly skeptical or somewhat disinterested. Leterrrier remembers several meetings, and more than a few dinner parties, where people would ask him what he was working on. When he’d tell them his new project was a follow-up to Henson’s 1982 anti-Muppet movie, the answer was usually: “Oh, is that the one with Bowie?” No, that’s Labyrinth, the director would gently remind them, referring to Henson’s 1986 fantasy featuring a goblin king, a kidnapped 16-year-old and the former Thin White Duke sporting one’s of the cinema’s greatest blown-out mullets. “‘I’m doing the one with the dinosaurs in dresses,'” Leterrier would tell them, cackling. “So many people just couldn’t remember what it was. But fans remembered. I remembered. There was this feeling that we could pay homage to Jim, and to his work, and really do something unique and new with what he gave us.”
Both he and Lisa Henson hope that longtime fans will appreciate how the Age of Resistance pays tribute to the original without being a slavish imitation or a mere nostalgia trip; they respectively mention that the mix of creative Dark Crystal brain trusts from back in the day (including concept artist Brian Froud, who contributed several new designs along with his wife Wendy and son Toby) and next-gen puppeteers gave the series continuity without a sense of creakiness. They’re each anxious for younger viewers to step into this universe for the first time. And they love that, like the 1982 film, the 2019 show retains the Grimm’s Fairy Tales feel of the senior Henson’s storytelling combined with a childlike sense of imagination. “It was the most political thing he ever did, talking about abuse of power and distrust of the ruling class,” Leterrier says. “So to be able to put this into the world at this moment…. It took years to make, but I’m glad it’s coming out now.”