Netflix offers fans a faithful return to ‘The Dark Crystal’
NEW YORK — Louis Leterrier knew he’d immediately face scrutiny from superfans of “The Dark Crystal” when he became director of its prequel. After all, he’s a superfan, too.
The French director calls Jim Henson’s groundbreaking 1982 fantasy puppet feature “a jewel of creation” and says it’s the main reason he became a filmmaker. He knew messing with its legacy was a dicey proposition.
“The keepers of that jewel are really hardcore about it. They really are ultra-protective and fearful. I’ve known that for a while. I’ve known that because I was one of them,” he said.
Fans will get a look at what Leterrier has achieved with “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” a 10-episode prequel debuting Friday on Netflix. They’ll find something remarkably respectful and vast — 83 puppeteers and 70 different creature species.
“I tell people it’s the biggest puppet production in history,” said Lisa Henson, daughter of the creator and chief executive of his entertainment company. “The scale of it is very awesome.”
The 1982 film, which Jim Henson co-directed with Frank Oz, was the first big live-action film to feature no human actors. While not a runaway success, the film has achieved cult status, riffed about on “South Park” and its music was sampled by the Crystal Method.
The new series is set on the same planet of Thra many years before the events of the movie, but has familiar characters — the kind, elf-like Gelflings and the evil dinosaur-buzzard Skeksis. As in the original, it is often the wonderfully realized minor creatures, insects and plants that really wow. Leterrier’s camera swirls and soars over this dynamic planet.
The new filmmakers were faithful to Henson’s sense of handcrafted art, using computers only when necessary — flying or swimming — or to enhance the characters, with, say, tongues that wrap around food. Some technology tricks — 3D printers, animatronics or filming scenes and then going back to cut out the puppeteers — were employed but no giant leaps from Henson’s legacy were made. If the Skeksis in the original film required six puppeteers, the same is the case for the series. Foam latex skin was also used for both projects.
Actor Taron Egerton jumped at the chance to join the new series, voicing a Gelfling named Rian. Egerton saw the 1982 film with his father and found it enchanting.
“It was otherworldly and completely different to anything I had seen at that age. And it’s still completely different to anything I’ve seen. I think that’s the wonderful thing about ‘The Dark Crystal.’ It is totally its own thing,” he said.
Netflix has taken some risk resurrecting such a beloved title. The main writers — Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews — had never done TV or undertaken anything so sprawling, while Leterrier, whose big-screen credits include action movies like “The Transporter” and “The Incredible Hulk” had no experience in TV or with puppets.
But he had passion, discussing various techniques and plot ideas with Henson’s heirs. “Here’s a Frenchman pouring his heart out and telling them how important Jim Henson is and ‘The Dark Crystal’ was to me,” he said.
After he accepted the job, he admitted he freaked out. “I realized, ‘What did you do, Louis? You’re such an idiot! You’re going to ruin it! You don’t know. You’ve just done action movies and karate movies. You cannot do this thing. Why, why, why?'” he recalled thinking. Then he joked: “I guess they were impressed by the accent.”
Leterrier and Henson’s children didn’t initially decide on a prequel. They first thrashed around for a way to create a sequel. But they couldn’t seem to get beyond the 1982 film’s ending — the grand unification of the Skeksis and Mystics and the healing of the crystal.
Leterrier calls it “an enormous exclamation point — one of the biggest in movie history.” So instead of building a sequel, they teased out the mythology of the first film along with input from the original filmmakers. They came up with a sweeping story that deals with environmental degradation and tyranny.
“These were the things that 37 years ago Jim Henson was worried about and was talking about. Now more than ever, it’s in the forefront of the news,” said Leterrier. “I guess that’s also why this movie stayed close to my heart — the stakes felt real.”
Netflix bankrolled a test to see how the series would look and that six-month process of building sets and characters became a puppet school for Leterrier. “I mean, it’s not like I’m casting Brad Pitt. I have to create Brad Pitt,” he said, laughing.
Leterrier also visited some original “Dark Crystal” puppets at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta to see how they moved — piano wire over wooden skeletons. This time, the puppets are lighter but the workload was bigger. To fill 10 hours, the series features 75 sets and 170 puppets, some of which took eight months to build. There’s even a puppet show within the puppet show.
The new and the old “Dark Crystal” projects actually share DNA. Brian Froud, the conceptual artist for the 1982 film and his puppet-builder wife, Wendy, both worked on the new series. Their son, Toby, is the design supervisor. (He was the baby abducted by David Bowie in Henson’s “Labyrinth.”)
Lisa Henson said the creators tried to keep two different audiences happy: “Both the people who loved ‘The Dark Crystal’ and for whom it is a very special memory and those who’ve never heard of ‘The Dark Crystal’ and couldn’t imagine that they would watch 10 hours of puppets on television,” she said, adding: “We went back and forth between those two mind-sets to think about those audiences while we were making the show.”