With memories still lingering of the lackluster 2007 film adaptation The Golden Compass, it might be understandable if audiences felt some hesitancy about His Dark Materials, the new HBO/BBC fantasy adventure based on Philip Pullman's acclaimed novels. However, if the trailers for the series, premiering tonight, aren't enough to ease their minds, know this: His Dark Materials is absolutely magical.
Unfolding in a fully realized parallel world with its own, rich mythology, and occasionally confusing lexicon -- alethiometers, Dust and so on -- in which every person has an animal companion known as a daemon, a manifestation of their "inner-self" or soul, and society is governed by the powerful church known as the Magisterium. It's against that backdrop that orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen of Logan) is brought as an infant to Jordan College, Oxford, where she's raised by the scholars, who enjoy some degree of protection from the Magisterium. However, that existence begins to unravel with twin threads that quickly intertwine: Research conducted by Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel Belacqua (James McAvoy) into the mysterious substance known as Dust, raising accusations of heresy, and the kidnappings of children by equally mysterious "gobblers."
His Dark Materials doesn't hold the hands of viewers, but instead plunges headlong into this fantasy England (or, rather, Brytain in the source material), which exchanges the vaguely Edwardian setting of Pullman's novel for something that resembles the early 20th century, with steampunk flourishes. Aside from a foreword, of sorts, explaining daemons, the series trusts that the audience is paying attention or else absorbing the important details through immersion. If there's confusion about the nature of Dust, or how someone suddenly steps into a thoroughly modern London, that's part of the charm; most of the characters don't fully understand either.
With an eight-episode first season, His Dark Materials is visually stunning, with effects that surpass those of Game of Thrones, to say nothing of the clunky Golden Compass. With so much riding on viewers buying into the concept of the daemons, ranging from rabbits and snow leopards to monkeys and an assortment of birds, the drama can't afford to have them to appear cartoonish, as so often happens because of the constraints of television budgets. But they're entirely convincing and fluid in movement, so much so that the viewer won't blink when Lyra's daemon, Pantalaimon, talks, or shifts (as all children's daemons do) between forms, from ermine to arctic fox to a bird.
Similarly, it's virtually impossible to tell where the physical sets and shooting locations end and the green-screen work begins, whether it's the Great Flood that engulfs Oxford in the prelude, the art deco towers of this parallel London, or the steamship journey north undertaken by Lyra and her Gyptian allies.
His Dark Materials isn't merely a visual treat, however; anyone familiar with Pullman's novels knows they explore philosophy and theology, while serving as barely veiled criticism of the Catholic Church. While the television adaptation retains those elements, it's the performances by the stellar cast that will no doubt attract the most attention.
Fourteen-year-old Keen, who was celebrated for her breakout role in 2017's Logan, carries the bulk of the weight of the series as Lyra, and does so with incredible range, slipping between defiance and vulnerability with remarkable ease, and holding her own with such seasoned veterans as McAvoy, Clarke Peters as The Master of Jordan College, and James Cosmo as Farder Coram of the Gyptians. But it's her scenes with Ruth Wilson as antagonist Marisa Coulter, who takes in the orphan , in which both performers shine.
Coulter could easily come across as little more than a scenery-chewing Disney villainous, but Wilson plays the Magisterium with an icy facade the frequently cracks, exposing alternating flashes of wisftulness and rage, the latter of which is unleashed upon her daemon, a golden monkey, or else on Lyra. She's absolutely magnetic as a primary antagonist who commands ever scene, and exudes menace, even when she's feigning concern or acquiescence.
Although His Dark Materials may require viewers to pause to familiarize themselves with its world's jargon (hey, that's what wikis are for), they're rewarded with the type of entertaining fantasy that's rare on television: smart, with high production values and none of the violence, nudity and profanity of, say, Game of Thrones. It's family viewing that neither dumbs itself down for younger audience members nor slows itself down for the older ones.
Premiering tonight at 9 ET/PT on HBO, following its U.K. debut on Sunday, His Dark Materials stars Dafne Keen as Lyra, Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby.