The international incident that was the recent trailer for the upcoming big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, with its grotesque stitching together of human actors’ faces (and breasts) with ‘digital fur technology’, expressed a fundamental paradox when it comes to visual effects on screen: in desperately striving for realism, you often create something that is much more conspicuously unreal.
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In fancy terminology, it’s a phenomenon known as the ‘uncanny valley’ – and it’s one audiences are increasingly having to endure, as animators, too, strive for the bafflingly self-defeating goal of making work that appears to be ‘live action’. But, while may people have expressed jubilant derision online at the sight of, say, The Lion King re-constituted as a wannabe nature documentary, with characters possessing the realistically non-expressive facial expressions of actual lions, the bottom line tells a very different story. Have no doubt: that remake’s $1bn plus worldwide box office means this obsession with verisimilitude isn’t going to stop anytime soon.
But perhaps a fightback is brewing – and it’s coming from a man who died 29 years ago. Back in the 80s, The Muppets’ creator Jim Henson extended his talent for creating irrepressible creatures beyond that chirpy franchise and into two fantasy films that captured the imagination in a much less benign fashion. The Dark Crystal (1982) and 1986’s Labyrinth were both nightmarish fantasy-adventures, set in warped fairy tale kingdoms, whose stature seems only to have grown in the collective memory ever since.
The joy of puppets
Maybe that’s because, for each generation of adults, there’s something particularly indelible about those cultural works that first gave us nightmares. But perhaps their enduring allure is also testament to the increasingly singular draw of puppetry. That’s to say, the ‘uncanny valley’ paradox runs both ways: set against all the CGI trickery foisted upon us, these figures’ unashamed fakeness makes them seem that much more authentic. They are, after all, real in a material sense, but at the same time seem more sincere (if you can ascribe sincerity to a puppet) for not trying to fool us of any greater reality.
Hence the strangely comforting sensation provided by ploughing through Netflix’s new Dark Crystal spin-off series Age of Resistance – and plough through it you most likely will. There were certainly reasons to be wary about this 10-episode prequel adventure. First of all, by following in the footsteps of Stranger Things and exploiting, once again, our current 1980s retro-mania, it just sounded too obvious: a commission by algorithm rather than artistic necessity.
The original fantasy film was a curio, with a convoluted mythology, but a rare economy
Then there was the question of whether expanding The Dark Crystal ‘universe’, in 21st-Century speak, would do Henson’s creation any favours. The original, which centred on the (apparently) lone survivor of an elf-like race called the Gelflings trying to save the land of Thra from a bunch of venal vulture-like villains called the Skeksis, is a curio. It’s at once possessed of an especially convoluted mythology – as laid out in the undigested exposition of the opening narration – and a rare (for the fantasy genre) economy, which sees it clip by in around 90 minutes. But altogether, that conspires to give it a compelling, elliptical quality, as if it was something conjured straight from Henson’s – or indeed our own – dreams. Elaborate on that vision, and fill in all the gaps, and you risk making the weird and wonderful seem prosaic and banal.
It’s pleasing to report that such fears are entirely unfounded. The opening sat nav-like voiceover from Sigourney Weaver may be ominously bland, but from that point onwards, this reboot carries you along with all the twisted verve of its forebear. Visually, of course, it has one foot in modern technology: where the original had to have human actors taking the place of puppets, and trudging through real-life locations, for its shonky wide shots, here seamlessly-integrated and dazzling CGI vistas give a sense of the full expanse of Thra. But at heart, there are those delightful Henson creations, still so tangible: the wide-eyed, wooden-but-in-a-charming-way Gelflings, and, most importantly, the junkyard fops that are the Skeksis, more absurdly malevolent than ever.
The other key upgrade this time around, of course, is the star-studded voice cast: on team Gelfling, we have bright young things Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor Joy and Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel joined by Helena Bonham Carter and Lena Headey, while on Team Skeksis we have the likes of Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, Awkwafina and Harvey Fierstein. It’s the latter of course who have the most fun, revelling in the Skeksis’s camp sadism, mangled argot and baroque phrases like “my most adored of the five ocular castigations”.
It’s heartening that Gelfling society is a matriarchal one – but the writers never lay this on thick
It wouldn’t do to reveal too much about the plot, except to say that it begins in Thra where no less than seven different clans of Gelflings are still living, in apparent harmony, under Skeksis rule – but not for long. And that we get three heroes this time round, each a Gelfling youth, separately having their eyes opened to their overlords’ nefarious and destructive ways: Skeksis castle guard Rian (Egerton), cave-dwelling Deet (Emmanuel), and princess Brea (Taylor-Joy), daughter of The Gelflings’ overall queen the All-Maudra (Bonham-Carter).
It’s notable and heartening that, with its exclusively female leaders, Gelfling society is a matriarchal one – but also the writers of the new version, Will Matthews and Jeffrey Addis, deserve credit for never laying this element on thick or patronising the audience with ‘girl power’ imperatives. What’s more, there is never the suggestion that women in charge are any more innately judicious, or magnanimous, than men.
As the episodes progress, it feels like the writers may just have made it all up on the spot
One of the most crucial elements it has retained, in this era of machine-tooled franchise ‘product’, is a sense of freewheeling bonkers-ness – as the episodes progress, it piles on more and more mythology in a knowingly absurd manner that makes it seem like Matthews and Addis may just have made it all up on the spot. “Trees can’t talk…” notes one character early on; “...except when they can,” chimes in another – which just about sums it up.
Indeed, it’s interesting to note that Henson’s inspiration for the Skeksis came from an illustration of crocodiles he saw in a picture-book version of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Pig Tale – because as fantasy goes, The Dark Crystals past and present lean closer to the nonsensical surrealism of Carroll or indeed Edward Lear than more coherent quest narratives like Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia or His Dark Materials. That surrealism comes to a brilliant head with a bizarre sequence in which a couple of characters relay the creation story of Thra through the mediums of opera, and yes, puppetry – the latter performance, in a nice meta-wink, prompting a groan from the assembled audience.
So cute it hurts
But as anyone who grew up on The Dark Crystal, or indeed Labyrinth, knows, there’s one thing above all else that defines Jim Henson’s fairy tale vision, which is its ability to swing suddenly between unparalleled cuteness and abject horror. That tonal pendulum is intact here. Those maniacal, miniature muppet plebeians, The Podlings, are back, with one of them, the wannabe warrior Hup, playing a chief sidekick role; meanwhile a sequence of an entire village of mucky Podlings being washed en masse by Gelflings, forced into a form of community service, is adorable enough to induce hyperventilation. (By contrast, those barking fluffball Fizzgigs are given little to do this time round, and will surely be involved in some collective bargaining on their screen time should a second series follow). And on the destined-to-invade-your-nightmares front, there is the “peeper beetle”, a living tentacular swamp, and an event that is Thra’s answer to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Such is the profusion of characters, a degree of confusion reigns at all times – not least when it comes to trying to distinguish members of the seven Gelfling clans. But this isn’t much of a drawback, in this instance, set against the pleasures of a world teeming with life. Indeed, in a way that is reminiscent of the early, great seasons of Game of Thrones, what Matthews, Addis and director Louis Leterrier have created is a series that is feels truly immersive – one where there is always sense of a fully-developed society beyond the frame, and whose greatest pleasures are to do with the small details rather than the big narrative beats.
Meanwhile the final marker of the show’s success may be quite how stealthily its deeper themes get under the skin. The need to engage with the here-and-now; the moral complicity of those who kowtow to a corrupt political status quo, and the cost of disrupting nature’s cycle; all these subjects resonate forcefully, while never feeling forced into the script. Where The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance could have come across as a calculating nostalgia exercise, it will instead force children of the 80s to concede: things aren’t what they used to be. They’re better.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is released on Netflix on Friday 30 August.
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