Though the plot does not come right up to the beginning of the film, this is well motivated as prequels go. Ten more hours of this strange human-free world, in probably the biggest puppet-based film production ever, and they pulled it off.
The traditional in-camera effects are skillfully boosted by modern animatronics and complemented by CGI, including post-production facial enhancements. The handiwork is amazing, though it does not peak quite as high as the original. In particular, the depiction of draining is a little more kid-friendly in this version. The use of puppetry is obviously a point of pride, and rightly so, though the Skeksis puppets look slightly simplified with less soft material like hair, perhaps for continuity. There are at least two reflective references to puppetry as a medium: The Heretic and the Wanderer illustrate the history of the world through a puppet show within the show (including hand puppet work by Barnaby Dixon), and the Hunter is eventually strung up like a puppet.
The faces are not very expressive, but I have no problem with this. As in the film, the plot is formulaic to the point that feelings can be inferred from its patterns. The acting is above average, and that certainly helps: There’s a heap of Game of Thrones (2011) alumni and Simon Pegg, Eddie Izzard, Alicia Vikander, Keegan-Michael Key and Mark Hamill, plus even a few good actors like Jason Isaacs, many of whom are puppeteers. The sheer level of baroque and distancing artistry in the presentation is a good substitute for pathos, as in the best ningyō jōruri.
The runtime offers many more such luxuries. Though the sets are understandably still few and small, and the number of characters on set is limited, the ecology is further developed, with more consistency. The armaligs, living wagon wheels, are particulary good as weird and dark fantasy creatures, whose mode of locomotion is consistent with a number of creatures in the film. The creatures are all good: A multi-species symbiotic hive mind, the Scientist’s bizarro kakapo with eyes on stalks, the magical locksnake, Morrowind-style improvements on the striders and all the lovely forest creatures, etc.
It’s appropriately silly. The moral dichotomy remains in place, for the most part, but there are a few cracks. The Heretic isn’t evil, the Arathim turn out to be morally grey despite being invasive mental puppeteers, and Aughra is good fun throughout. The massively expanded screentime of the Skeksis—the plural of which ought to have been skekses—does allow for a great deal of character and personality, but the show does not betray its childish roots or its slavery to genre with complications. Like Cowboy Bebop (1998), it sets the comic-relief character (Hup! Hup!) aside for the showdown’s puppet combat.