Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Did you find the Gelflings hit the “uncanny valley”?

A review of the new Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Netflix miniseries. Spoiler: this reviewer did not think much of it:

Real talk: Gelfling are … bad. Boring. Lifeless. Dull.

On their own, they’d be generic enough — a first-pass attempt at your garden-variety Tolkien-adjacent high-fantasy race. But as soon as you place them — as do both the original 1982 The Dark Crystal film and Netflix’s new, 10-episode prequel series — at the center of a world as gorgeously wrought, breathtakingly detailed and astonishingly elaborate as that of The Dark Crystal, they become something even worse: They’re basic.

And so on. I wasn’t planning to watch the miniseries because I seldom watch anything, but I do remember The Dark Crystal, and I found this tidbit from the review interesting:

But Gelfling? They’ve got disturbingly human-like faces, and we know how those work. And even though the art of Gelfling-animatronics has evolved in the 37 years since the film — eyebrows now knit, cheeks now dimple — Gelfling as a race remain permanent residents of the darkest depths of the uncanny valley.

And I thought, Really?

Here are Gelflings.

Honestly, do they trigger the Uncanny Valley thing for you?

Wikipedia says: The concept of the uncanny valley suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers.

And I’m not seeing it. I don’t experience either eeriness or revulsion in response to the Gelflings, and I don’t recall having any response like that when I first say the Dark Crystal, either.

The reviewer does refer to their fixed eyes and unmoving faces, but I honestly don’t remember having a particular problem with that. They’re puppets. I get that they’re puppets. I had problems with the Sudden Wing Syndrome, a startlingly common phenomenon in not-very-great fantasy, but I don’t recall having trouble because of the limitations of the puppetry.

How about it? Anybody recall finding the Gelflings revolting (or eerie) when they first saw the movie?

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6 Comments Did you find the Gelflings hit the “uncanny valley”?

  1. Allan Shampine

    I remember in the original finding the Gelflings creepy. That was before I was familiar with the “uncanny valley” term, but I can see why Gelflings are not clear cut examples. Usually problems with the uncanny valley are for things that supposed to be human. Gelflings aren’t. But are they close enough that we still get the effect? If you just take a human face and slap pointy ears on it and call it an elf, you can absolutely have uncanny valley problems. How far do you have to go from base human before the brain stops trying to read human signals? My guess is the Gelflings are far enough that most people won’t have the problem but close enough that a minority will. I’m in that minority, but it didn’t decrease my enjoyment of the original. There were a lot of creepy things in that movie, I just included Gelflings in the list…

  2. Pete Mack

    Hmm. Sudden wing syndrome is not familiar term. Searxg attempt brings up sudden death in chickens. :/

  3. Rachel

    Pete, I made it up just now because I was thinking of several times in (not great) fantasy novels where Suddenly The Protagonist Turns Out To Be Able To Fly.

    Wings Suddenly Appear Because That Is So Convenient Syndrome would also work.

    More generically, Sudden Superpower Syndrome. Not one of my favorite things in fiction.

  4. Elaine T

    I don’t recall how they struck me back when Dark Crystal was new, other than clearly designed by Froud. That photo above, though, makes me think of anime designs. Not uncanny valley, but not human either.

  5. Johannes Weißleder

    I think you guys are somewhat missing the point, with all due respect. (Of course my statement is based only on personal experience).

    So the creepyness / eerieness / uncanny valley stems not from human features in a fantasy creature, but from a “false” kind of liveliness. For example we are irritated when a filmed human face is slapped on an annoying orange (or the like), and the face is alive while the fruit is not. Personally I also get this affect from people with heavy plastic surgery and make-up: While some parts of their face -like eyeballs – register as real, others seem dead or fake.
    My interpretation is, that my brain gets confused about if it’s looking at a living being or inanimate object. (That also explains why we are not affected by the still photography shown above.) Cheers.

  6. Rachel

    Johannes, you could be right — but on the other hand, I don’t get irritated when a human face is slapped on an orange, or whatever. That looks silly to me, but not annoying, uncanny, eerie, or anything of the kind.

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