Netflix and Amazon both drop major fantasy projects with winged creatures heading into the Labor Day weekend: “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” a 10-part prequel to Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s 1982 movie; and “Carnival Row,” starring Orlando Bloom. Each lands with a dull thud for different reasons, and one shared one – namely, feeling derivative beyond redemption.
First, a disclaimer: Henson’s genius notwithstanding, “The Dark Crystal” was a visually interesting, technically impressive and dramatically limp movie. If you feel strongly otherwise, it’s possible your mileage may vary.
That said, the idea of revisiting this puppetry-based fantasy world filled with Gelflings, they of the seven clans, and Skeksis, the vulture-like creatures that rule over them, seems inherently flawed, perhaps in part because even though the movie premiered 37 years ago, the series can’t help but feel like “Avatar Lite,” cross-pollinated with “The Lord of the Rings.”
The new “Crystal” focuses on a perilous quest, undertaken by a trio of young Gelflings in an effort to save their world from warnings of “the darkening.”
Much of the series is beautiful to look at conceptually, but there’s no getting around the sameness of the character design (Gelflings tend to look alike), the lack of expression in those big, soulless American-doll-style eyes, and the lifeless storytelling, which certainly isn’t helped by the generic characters and some of the irritating Jar Jar Binks-type dialogue.
Overseen by “The Transporter” director Louis Leterrier, and Henson’s daughter, Lisa Henson, the producers have recruited a big-name vocal cast, many with promotable ties to other major franchises, including Sigourney Weaver, Mark Hamill, Taron Egerton and Jason Isaacs. Yet that merely serves to highlight stories that would represent a better use of one’s time (even if it’s an encore) than sitting through this.
The revival comes amid a wave of nostalgia for cultural artifacts of the 1980s, which produced a number of youth-oriented fantasies along these lines, including “The Neverending Story,” “Labyrinth” and “Legend.”
“Skeksis are forever,” it’s said at one point. While adding a fresh title under “Dark Crystal” no doubt fits neatly into Netflix’s algorithm, “Age of Resistance” isn’t forever; rather, it just feels like an awfully long sit.
“Carnival Row” is a grittier, more adult foray into a mythological world, although many of its influences – and shortcomings – feel similar.
Adapted from an unproduced screenplay by Travis Beacham, the story unfolds in a world inhabited by winged faeries and horned pucks, who face discrimination in the human-dominated land where they have taken up residence as a byproduct of men’s wars. This shared world vaguely resembles London in the Victorian era, which makes sense, because there’s a series of grisly Jack the Ripper-esque murders at the core of the convoluted plot.
Bloom stars as Rycroft Philostrate (there are a lot of names like that), a detective in a bowler hat seeking to unravel that mystery. He’s reunited, meanwhile, with a faerie, Vignette (Cara Delevingne), with whom he shares history from a war that’s largely dispatched in an opening sequence and lengthy script that runs across the screen.
Already renewed for a second season, the cast includes Jared Harris as the city’s chancellor, while the title refers to the hardscrabble neighborhood where the fae congregate and the murders are taking place. There are also some ornate subplots – including a status-conscious brother-sister tandem upset about their new neighbor – but not enough of it coalesces over the course of the eight episodes.
World building is hard enough, but as circus acts go, “Carnival Row” is like a juggler on a unicycle. It’s kind of interesting to watch, but nobody really needs it. Nor does the prejudice directed at the mythological races really come alive, as allegorical as it might feel.
Tapping into a passionate fan base is clearly the goal with both of these projects, which, on subscription services, don’t necessarily need to attract huge audiences, just intensely loyal ones. Couched that way, “Carnival Row” reflects what P.T. Barnum would be banking on if he were around today – namely, that there’s a streamer born every minute.
“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” and “Carnival Row” premiere August 30 on Netflix and Amazon, respectively.