Entertainment

How the 'Dark Crystal' Prequel Brought Its Weirdo '80s Puppets to Netflix

Netflix

We're in the midst of what can only be called a nostalgia boom. Movie and TV studios are trawling through their archives, reviving anything and everything that either was a hit 40 years ago, or through time has gathered a cult following of devotees. Forever ongoing franchises like Halloween and The Terminator are bringing back fan favorite characters; beloved comics are being turned into TV series; and original shows like Stranger Things have built a rabid following with an aggressively 1980s pastiche aesthetic that evokes everyone's favorites, from The Lost Boys to The Goonies to The Thing. It was only a matter of time, then, before Jim Henson's groundbreaking horror-fantasy The Dark Crystal was resurrected for a new look at a fan favorite story. 

It's sheer luck that Netflix's The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a prequel series to the 1982 movie, even happened. Well, "luck and the universe," as co-creator Jeffrey Addiss told me when he, co-creator Will Matthews, and writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach hopped on a call to tell Thrillist all about how this series came together. After rejecting Addiss and Matthews' pitch for another idea, Netflix threw them a bone and mentioned they were considering a potential series based on a weird cult movie from the 1980s. The two came back, "pitched our little hearts out," and got the job. 

"And that's when Javi [Grillo-Marxuach] came in," Addiss said. "We formed a collective. It was an extraordinarily collaborative process that took a scant three and a half years to get done." Grillo-Marxuach was shown the test footage that Addiss and Matthews had shot when he had his first meeting with Netflix. "I broke into tears," he said. "It was so beautiful. The Dark Crystal was one of those movies in my childhood that signaled that my tribe was out there, that there were weirdo artists out there who wanted to make weird shit." 

Age of Resistance begins way before the events of 1982's 90-minute Dark Crystal, and expands on the story in 10 hour-long episodes. If you don't recall, or have never seen the original (which is conveniently available to stream on Netflix), it begins with the elf-like Gelfling Jen, who has been living with a kindly tribe of Mystics, sent on a quest to retrieve a shard of the Dark Crystal, which, when broken, brought the Mystics and their evil, greedy counterparts the Skeksis into the world of Thra.

When it was released, the movie mostly perplexed people who were only familiar with Jim Henson through his family-friendly Muppets -- a far cry from this dark, frightening tale. (It also had the misfortune of going up against Steven Spielberg's E.T. at the box office, a fate I wouldn't wish on most movies.) But, through the years, as these things tend to do, the small fandom grew into a sizable cult. 

"We're in the cult! It's The Dark Crystal, for God's sake!" Grillo-Marxuach said. "How often, if your name isn't J.J. Abrams, you get to go and, like, work in the footsteps of people who are giants from your childhood who literally informed your experience of the world?" Addiss, who used to sketch Mystics in his notebook, had actually once made one for a class project -- and took twice as long as the other students to complete it: "Everybody else in the class had moved on to the next project, but I said no." 

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Jen and his Master, a Mystic living in hiding in the mountains at the beginning of 'The Dark Crystal.' | The Jim Henson Company

What a gift, then, that so many of the people who had worked on the original movie wanted to return to make the series. "We have master puppet fabricators who've been with the creature shop for 30, 40 years," Grillo-Marxuach said. "We've got people in the wardrobe department who worked in the original. Brian Froud is doing designs for this, along with his wife, who also worked on the original." Froud's son Toby, whom you might know as the cute little zoot-suited baby in Labyrinth, was one of the character designers. 

"Henson has an archivist, and they made everything available to us," Addiss said. "There were all these beautiful pieces left around that were not used that were part of the world. We did not make it our goal to use them, if that makes sense. We weren't writing towards those things usually. But there were often opportunities to fold them in." 

"That's why we say it's a mixture of luck and hard work, because we would have wanted to work on this show at any point in the last 10 years," Matthews said. "It was kismet that all the roads came together." 

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One of the evil Skeksis from the new series. | Netflix

The new series begins years before the Skeksis' true villainy has been revealed to the world. They live in the Castle of the Crystal as lords amongst a host of loyal Gelfling soldiers. In a bid to make themselves immortal, one of the Skeksis discovers the true powers of the Dark Crystal by accident, and the few Gelflings who start to figure it all out have to convince an entire civilization to rebel against their masters. Many of the characters, such as the Gelflings Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Rian (Taron Egerton), are new, and even a few of the Skeksis, two of which are voiced by Awkwafina (The Collector) and Andy Samberg (The Heretic), are new additions. 

"I think that a lot of people have assumed that, because of the way the Skeksis behave and what their agenda is, that we are somehow making a statement about American politics in the year 2019," Grillo-Marxuach said with a laugh. "The truth of the matter is, we are attracted to this material because it's archetypal, because it speaks truth about power. These are things that have existed through history. We try to think of the show as something that, wherever you watch it, it needs to feel like it's speaking to you about your experience." The show has been dubbed into 33 languages, and because not one of the characters is human, "there's a lack of cultural specificity." 

That shows through in the design of the Gelflings, which, though they live in distinct tribes that have looks and skin tones and behaviors that are distinct from one another, are not based on anything recognizably from the planet Earth. "We assiduously avoided that trope where one culture is clearly a stand-in for tribal Africa, and another culture is clearly a stand-in for feudal Japan, and another culture is clearly a stand-in for Tudor England. We didn't want that. We want these cultures, all of them to have their own unique identity." 

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Gelfling Deet and her Podling friend Hup. | Netflix

What's so remarkable about the series is that it's so, so faithful to Henson and Froud's original movie, down to the usage of puppetry nearly throughout. Now, the fact that it was made in the modern era allows for what some might call cheating: namely, the use of computer-generated imagery, which, though subtle, allows the show to do things that you just can't do with practical effects. "This is a big shibboleth with the sort of people who talk about the show like, oh, it's pure puppetry, there's no CGI, blah, blah, blah," Grillo-Marxuach said. "We use the puppets the way that actors were used in Game of Thrones. The entire cast is puppets. At the same time, you don't make a show in the present day without availing yourself of these amazing technologies that allow you to world build on a skill that has never existed before. It's the wrong conversation to say it's CGI versus puppetry. It is the seamless blending of an ancient artisanal art form with the cutting edge of technology."

Lore, a wonderful new character made entirely out of a pile of rocks that magically stack and balance themselves into a four-limbed creature, was at first planned to be only computer-generated. "The creature shop is so good, that they built Lore, and Lore is much more practical that you'd think. What they did was paint out the puppeteers, because they're strapped in at all times." And even when a character did need to be CGI, the artists were very careful not to "help it." "What we didn't want," Addiss explained, "was, when there was CGI, for them to suddenly move in a way they didn't feel like the puppets could do, that all of a sudden they would have a wider range of movement." They ended up designing a computer program that would move digital puppeteers instead of the creature itself, to give the illusion of practical effects. 

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The Skeksis get an armor upgrade. | Netflix

Prequel series are inherently tough, though, especially since most people watching them already know where the story will eventually end up -- and that's rarely a good place. At the start of The Dark Crystal, the Gelflings and all the other people of Thra are subjugated by the Skeksis, who hole up in their castle and drain the life essence from whatever they capture. So, what's the point of going back to the beginning, when we already know all the good guys are doomed? "When Will and I pitched the show, we had an answer to that question," Addiss said. "Everything that we're telling [in the series] is building towards that answer. Thra is a big world, and there's more space for hope there than you might think." 

"Just because you make assumptions about what happened in the past doesn't mean that what you think happened is exactly what happened," Grillo-Marxuach added. 

"At the beginning of the movie," Matthews said, "Master says to Jen, 'The story runs deeper than you know.' Let that be your guiding light." 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.