The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and the epic quest to revive Jim Henson's Dark Crystal universe
Netflix’s just-released show The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is, without question, an epic fantasy tale. A prequel to Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s beloved, puppet-filled 1982 movie The Dark Crystal, the series tracks three Gelflings in their fight against the dreaded Skeksis. “We’re many years before the time of the movie,” says the late Henson’s daughter Lisa Henson, who is CEO and President of The Jim Henson Company and an executive producer on the show. “We’re backing up to a time when the Gelflings were plentiful in the world of Thra. It was a rich culture, they had their own civilization.”
Hardly less epic than The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance itself? The many years, and failed attempts, it took to bring an expansion of the film’s mythology to the screen. Henson himself always hoped to further detail the universe of The Dark Crystal and had discussed the possibility of a sequel with David Odell, who wrote the original film. In February 2006 — sixteen years after Henson’s passing — the Jim Henson Company announced that animation director Genndy Tartakovsky (Star Wars: Clone Wars, Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory) had been recruited to direct The Power of the Dark Crystal, from a screenplay written by Odell and his wife, Annette Duffy. “[David Odell] is the original writer of The Dark Crystal, and he had discussed this sequel concept with Jim,” Lisa Henson told MTV News. “They didn’t get too far into it, but [Odell] had a pretty good memory of the basic bones of the sequel idea.”
The film was to be set hundreds of years after the events of the first movie and would follow the adventures of a mysterious girl made of fire who, together with a Gelfling outcast, steals a shard of the legendary Crystal in an attempt to reignite the dying sun that exists at the center of the planet. “As an auteur of such exciting and fantastical adventure projects, Genndy is the perfect director to bring to life Power of the Dark Crystal,” Lisa Henson was quoted as saying in the announcement press release. “I am sure that his visualization of (Dark Crystal conceptual designer) Brian Froud’s designs will thrill fans of the original film as well as audiences who are meeting these beloved characters for the first time.”
Fans never got to see Tartakovsky’s “visualization” at all, with the director subsequently departing the project. “My whole take was it was going to be a [Hayao] Miyazaki puppet movie,” Tartakovsky told IndieWire in 2012, referring to the legendary Japanese director of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. “It was going to have that feel to it. It was going to be in the spirit of The Dark Crystal but pushing it further and being more modern. We did visual designs, we did a script, we started testing things, and then we were always a couple of dollars short, and it just kind of fell apart.”
Lisa Henson remained determined to pursue the project and in May 2010 it was announced that the Jim Henson Company had struck a new deal to make Power of the Dark Crystal, this time with the Australian-based Omnilab Media. Sibling filmmakers Peter and Michael Spierig (Undead, the Ethan Hawke-starring vampire film Daybreakers) were set to direct the 3D movie, with a screenplay by regular Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet). “Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig are sure to create a film that will continue the legacy of the original and exceed the expectations of our loyal fans,” said Lisa Henson, in a statement at the time.
Henson’s words once again proved premature. By the end of 2011, the movie was on hiatus. “We invested a lot of time and energy into trying to get that property up,” Omnilab managing director Christopher Mapp told IF magazine. “We agreed that it would sit for a period of time and we’d talk again sometime in 2012. We hope that we’ll get a chance to give that another breath of life.”
In a 2014 interview with Vulture, Lisa Henson confirmed that the film was still in development but not yet in pre-production. She also revealed that the Jim Henson Company had begun to consider the possibility of a Dark Crystal television show. “There are many of us here who are big fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender — the idea of doing a serialized adventure starring the Gelflings is something that we’re intrigued by. Don’t write it like we’re moving straight into production on that! But we think it has some potential.”
The filmmaker who would finally transform that potential into reality was Louis Letterier, the director of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk and 2010’s Clash of the Titans, and a diehard fan of the original Dark Crystal movie. “I grew up watching it,” Letterier tells EW. “It is one of the movies, if not the movie, that made me want to become a filmmaker. The universe was so vast, so different [to] anything I had seen before, especially at a young age. It really struck a chord in me because it was so real.”
Following the box office success of Clash of the Titans, Letterier approached the Jim Henson Company, pitching himself as the person who could finally put the property back on the big screen.
“We were talking to him about the possibility of directing a feature film sequel to the movie,” says Lisa Henson. “We had a feature film sequel in development. People who closely follow us in the fan world will know that we announced that movie and then didn’t make it. So, that was something that we were really excited about doing, but as it didn’t come together, we had shifted our attention to doing a television prequel. When Netflix said that they wanted to do the television series, we asked Louis if he would be willing to switch to the television series.”
Letterier was willing to do so and in May 2017 Deadline reported that the filmmaker would oversee a 10-part prequel series titled The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance will combine the art of puppetry perfected by the Jim Henson Company, with Louis’ vision, powerful storytelling and a mix of cutting-edge digital imagery and visual effects,” said Cindy Holland, VP Original Content at Netflix, in a statement.
Letterier was among the behind-the-scenes principals who believed it important that the show make use of puppetry rather than CG, whenever possible. “I was not fighting against anyone, I was fighting against common sense and practicality,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s so so complicated to build a puppet, hire puppeteers, all that stuff.”
In December, 2018, Netflix released the first images from the TV show and announced that its voice cast would star Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Game of Thrones actress Nathalie Emmanuel as the three main Gelfling heroes, as well as Caitriona Balfe, Helena Bonham Carter, Natalie Dormer, Eddie Izzard, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, and Andy Samberg, among others. In June of this year, it was announced that Lena Headey, Awkwafina, and Sigourney Weaver had also joined the cast.
According to Lisa Henson, it was Taron Egerton’s early enthusiasm for the project which led to such a starry lineup of talent. “Taron Egerton, bless him, he was the first actor to get involved,” she says. “He became such a wonderful magnet. After he committed to play Rian, we had so many people say ‘Yes’ other roles.”
“When the offer came through to be involved with this project, I really, really didn’t even read the script,” says the Kingsman and Rocketman actor. “I just said, ‘Yes.’ I just thought it was incredible that they were going to make this earlier chapter in the story and be so faithful to the techniques that Jim used.”
After more than a decade of attempts, a new version of Jim Henson’s vision is now available for fans — and fans-in-the-making — to watch. Louise Letterier, for one, is content that he has done everything he can to pay homage to Henson’s film. “Every day, at every level, since I started the show, I’ve had an iPad with me, checking the original,” says the director. “Look at the original, look at what we’re doing, at every level — the image, the puppetry, sound design, everything. It’s obviously cut from the same cloth. We chose the long, hardest road and we’re very thankful [we did]. It looks absolutely stunning.”