Review by C.J. Bunce
For me the challenge and threshold for success for HBO’s series His Dark Materials was huge. The first adaptation of Philip Pullman’s wildly successful series of novels was the 2007 big-screen film The Golden Compass, which rated #1 on my all-time favorite fantasy movie list here at borg back in 2012. Late last year HBO took on its own adaptation, and the first season arrived, but fell in the shadow of more popular, and more marketed series last year like The Mandalorian. So on the one hand we have a big-budget movie with an all-star cast–so how does the TV series fare by comparison? At last His Dark Materials just arrived on Blu-Ray and DVD and the studio sent us a copy for review (you can order it here at Amazon), so check out my review below, along with a preview of Season 2.
Both the movie and the series were going to hinge on the success of the young lead actresses–Dakota Blue Richards in the film, Dafne Keen in the series. Both delivered fantastic, distinctly different interpretations. Keen, who we couldn’t have loved more as Laura aka X-32 in the Oscar-nominated superhero movie Logan, continues to grow as an impressive and versatile actor. She’s completely believable as a girl destined to change the threads of time in not only her universe but others. But where The Golden Compass focused on the adventure and journey of Lyra Belacqua, the series highlights the darkness telegraphed by the title. The stakes here feel greater than the stakes of comparable fantasies, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Wizard of Oz.
The series doesn’t have the likes of Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, Ian McKellen, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee, and Kathy Bates. But impressively enough, the series holds its own with its own great cast, including Ruth Wilson (whose layered performances runs circles around Kidman singular villain, creating a truly vile, timeless performance as Lyra’s mother), Lin-Manuel Miranda (who seems to tap Nathan Fillion as the next charismatic, Western inspired gunslinger type), Ruta Gedmintas as a stunningly cool Serafina, James Cosmo (who provides similar gravitas as in his countless genre roles), Lucian Msamati, Ariyon Bakare, Will Keen, Nina Sosanya, and Anne-Marie Duff in supporting roles, impressive voice creations by Joe Tandberg (Iorek), Kit Connor (Pantalaimon), Cristela Alonzo (Hester), Helen McCrory (Stelmaria), and Peter Serafinowicz (Iofur), and smaller roles with Harry Melling continuing to expand an already brilliant portfolio as Sysselman, and brief appearances by fan-favorite former X-Man James McAvoy.
HBO did not skimp on the special effects. The animal partners to the human characters (called daemons), are just as impressive as in the movie version (I made it through four episodes before even thinking of them as being CGI creations). The overall production and art direction steps away from the steampunk of the film, opting for impressive Art Deco features. Serafina gets the best scene of the season, entering Quicksilver-style to clear out a band of villains in a blink of an eye. This series doesn’t have the production budget or spectacle of the Harry Potter movies, but it has coming of age story elements it sometimes handles better.
As for the story, it’s the same, but different. The film did not take audiences into the parallel world the series explores–a highlight for this series. The series feels as much science fiction as fantasy for the choice–if you were a fan of the dual role J.K. Simmons series called Counterpart, you’ll probably love the tracking story in His Dark Materials, which zooms ahead to converge with all you knew of that fantasy world from The Golden Compass.
The result is an epic execution and a series that belongs among the best fantasy stories on your TV/film shelf. Be aware this is darker, conjuring those childhood nightmares of children kidnapped and caged that was captured so well by Ian Fleming in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang. Yet it produces a fantasy world exploring big, often more adult themes. Is it as good as the film? The Golden Compass holds its own at the top of the adventure movies of the fantasy film pantheon, but His Dark Materials firmly challenges the best of fantasy television in equally worthy ways as a dark, dramatic journey of a well-developed young heroine.
The Blu-Ray/digital combo includes nine features: the series trailer, a single interview reel focused on each of Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and James McAvoy, and a documentary short each looking at the screenwriting, the CGI creatures, the costumes, and the set, props, and art production.
Here is a preview of the second season of His Dark Materials:
Order season one of His Dark Materials now on Blu-Ray and Digital here at Amazon, or catch it streaming on HBO.
Season 2, based on Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, is expected to arrive this Fall on HBO. And don’t miss the original Pullman novels, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, available here at Amazon.