MUMBAI :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.