‘The Dark Crystal’ Returns on an Even Grander Scale

“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” a 10-part Netflix series, is a prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 puppet fantasy film.

ImageA Gelfling in “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” debuting Friday on Netflix.
A Gelfling in “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” debuting Friday on Netflix.CreditCreditKevin Baker/Netflix

SLOUGH, England — “We’re sure we’re doing something that no one else is doing,” said Lisa Henson last August.

She was in a conference room in the newly opened studio complex, just outside London, that served as the home of Netflix’s ambitious prequel series “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” The walls were papered with maps, photographs and sketches, and the table was laden with a plastic diorama of a mythical city. Just down the corridor, 48 puppeteers were gathering: a core team of 12 and an extra 36 brought in for the day’s shooting. “It’s the biggest puppet production ever mounted,” Henson said.

That’s a difficult claim to fact-check, but if anyone would know, she would. As the daughter of the Muppet impresario Jim Henson and as the chief executive of the entertainment company he founded, she has been around more puppet extravaganzas than most people, including “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show,” “Fraggle Rock,” “Labyrinth” and more.

The most ambitious of these was the gloomy new-age fantasy saga “The Dark Crystal,” from 1982. Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the film was, in more ways than one, a world away from “Sesame Street.” One of the few live-action films to have no flesh-and-blood beings onscreen, it played like a cross between “Star Wars” and “The Hobbit” as it ranged across the planet of Thra, with its forests of sentient flora and its cackling, vulture-like Skeksis rulers. The darker facets of “The Dark Crystal” may have given nightmares to young viewers expecting something closer to Bert and Ernie, but the film’s scope and elaborate visuals remain impressive more than three decades later. Henson, who died in 1990, called it his proudest achievement.

ImageJim Henson on the set of “The Dark Crystal” in 1982.
Jim Henson on the set of “The Dark Crystal” in 1982.CreditUniversal Pictures, via Everett Collection

“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” premiering Friday on Netflix, is built on an even grander scale. A 10-part series, it includes 180 puppet characters, 90 different sets and 10,000 lines of dialogue voiced by an all-star cast that includes Mark Hamill, Helena Bonham Carter, Andy Samberg, Simon Pegg and Keegan-Michael Key. The grotesque Skeksis, the gentle Gelflings and the potato-faced Podlings will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film, but the series is new territory for everyone involved, including the viewer.

“What’s it like to watch 10 hours of something, and it’s live-action, and there are no humans in it?” asked Jeff Addis, an executive producer and one of two head writers (with Will Matthews), on set in August 2018. “We’re going to find out.”

All 10 episodes were directed by the French director Louis Leterrier, a longtime Henson fan whose films include Marvel’s “The Incredible Hulk” and the 2010 remake of “Clash of the Titans.” When Leterrier first came to Hollywood, his agent asked him whom he would like to meet in the American film industry.

“I told him there’s just one company,” Leterrier said. “It’s the Hensons. I was in awe of them.”

Lisa Henson, in turn, invited Leterrier to help with various “Dark Crystal” film and series concepts she had been trying to develop.

Her father, she noted, had worked on developing the film for “an exceptionally long time, so the world had a reality and a mythology to it that were comparable to places like Middle-earth and Westeros.”

“You had the sense that things were happening in other parts of the world which you didn’t see in the movie,” she continued, “and that you could go back in time many years.”

They ended up with a two-pronged project: Leterrier, desperate to work with puppets, was to direct a live-action sequel for the big screen, while an animated television series was to tell the tale of how Thra’s peaceful, matriarchal civilization had crumbled in the first place, leaving behind the wasteland depicted in the film.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood studios didn’t fall over themselves to bankroll a cartoon about genocide and ecological catastrophe. “Everyone was scared of it,” said Leterrier.

But Netflix was interested, Henson said, because it was looking for something children and parents could watch together. So the two projects were combined into one live-action prequel TV series, to be made by Leterrier in “the most complicated way possible,” he said.

In short: Forget animation, bring back the puppets.

The vulture-like Skeksis were the villains of “The Dark Crystal.”CreditMary Evans, Ronald Grant/Henson Productions, via Everett Collection
The Skeksis are back in “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.”CreditKevin Baker/Netflix

Henson’s next call was to Brian Froud, a British artist who had been the conceptual designer on the original film. Back in the 1970s, Jim Henson had admired Froud’s richly textured illustrations of woodland trolls and goblins (perhaps the soft, rounded faces struck a chord with the creator of the Muppets). They went on to collaborate on “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” (1986). Froud also met his wife, the American puppet builder Wendy Froud (then Wendy Midener), in Henson’s studios. Their son, Toby, played the baby who was abducted by David Bowie’s goblin king in “Labyrinth.”

All three Frouds worked on “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” with Toby serving as the design supervisor in the production’s “Creature Shop.” As he guided visitors around the menagerie of phenomenally detailed and spookily lifelike latex creations last August, his parents sat on opposite sides of a table, Wendy gluing feathers onto a puppet’s head and Brian drawing runes in a notepad.

“We thought we were done 30 years ago, or whenever it was,” Brian Froud said, “and now here we are again.”

Visiting the sets of fantasy films or series can be disillusioning in the age of computer generated imagery — they consist largely of green screens and tennis balls on sticks. But the “The Dark Crystal” headquarters was like a vast, immersive theme-park ride. Room after room was stocked with swords, canoes, musical instruments, 3D-printed model castles and alien fiends in various states of repair. (Some shots will be enhanced with C.G.I.)

From left, Lisa Henson, Brian Froud and Wendy Froud at the “Dark Crystal” studio. “It’s the biggest puppet production ever mounted,” Henson said.CreditNetflix

On the soundstages were caverns, laboratories and villages, all carved out of polystyrene blocks. Artificial trees stretched away into the artificial mist, toward distant mountains and valleys painted on backdrops the size of IMAX screens. And, of course, there were the puppets — a gaggle of exuberant if battle-weary Gelflings, each one carried and manually operated by its own individual handler.

The puppeteers “are the show’s true unsung heroes,” said the tall and cheerful Leterrier, bubbling with energy on Day 153 of a 174-day shoot. “They are bent over, they can’t feel their hands, they’re too cold, too hot, too dirty, and no one will see them.”

As well as being the series’s director, Leterrier was one of its two cinematographers, jogging alongside the puppeteers with a shoulder-mounted camera for hours each day. As a result, the series has a whirling dynamism that was lacking in the static and sometimes ponderous film.

“Louis has reinvented the genre,” Lisa Henson said. The show’s other masterminds were just as effusive.

“We tried to write the biggest, craziest, most epic, most sweeping fantasy drama we could, not limited by time, by budget, or by puppets,” said Matthews, one of the head writers. “And then Louis came in and said, ‘O.K., that’s a good starting point, here’s how we can make it bigger and crazier.’ Then Brian came in and said, ‘Here’s how we can add more to that,’ and then Wendy came in and said, ‘Here’s how we fill in the cracks.’”

“We were like the Gelflings,” he added. “We all worked together for the greater good.”