Dir: David L Cunningham. US. 2007. 102 mins.
Hollywood 's latest take on a cherished fantasy novel series has a modern American teen hero battling ancient evil forces in a Christmassy British setting. That mix of elements should lead to a respectable theatrical showing and a decent video performance for The Dark Is Rising (released as The Seeker in the US), adapted by Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge from a book in Susan Cooper's mid-seventies series. It probably won't be enough, however, to produce really big returns for this slightly lacklustre and generic-feeling family adventure from Twentieth Century Fox and Walden Media.
Going out as the first release by the new Fox Walden marketing joint venture, the film opens wide (with a PG rating) in North America this weekend. That will allow it plenty of time to play before the arrival of bigger fantasy novel adaptations such as The Golden Compass and The Water Horse. A Harry Potter-sized take is out of the question, though, and The Seeker may even find it hard to match the domestic grosses of Walden's recent Bridge to Terabithia ($82.3m) or Fox's similarly male-skewing fantasy from last autumn, Eragon ($75m).
Many international markets will get the film later this month, in time for school half-term holidays. The timing - and perhaps the fact that UK-born Cooper started her career in Britain - could lead to stronger performances in some territories.
Cooper's award-winning novels use the same kind of the Celtic- and Arthurian-flavoured mythology that has recently been turned into box office gold by the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies.
Adapting the second of the six books (itself titled The Dark Is Rising) in the series, Hodge makes changes that have already caused a stir among fans of the novels. Most notably, the script turns the book's 11-year-old British hero into a 14-year-old American.
In the screen version, Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) and his large family are just beginning to settle into their new home in a small British town when some of the locals present the American teen with an incredible story. Will, they claim, is the last in a line of warriors, led by townsfolk Merriman (Ian McShane) and Miss Greythorne (Frances Conroy, from TV's Six Feet Under). The 'Old Ones' seem to their neighbours like ordinary people, but they have supernatural powers and the ability to travel through time as they battle for the Light against the forces of the Dark.
Now Will must learn to harness the skills that his fourteenth birthday have unleashed so he can find six ancient signs that will allow him to defeat The Rider (Christopher Eccleston) and save the unsuspecting world from being taken over by the Dark (whose approach is manifested by a devastating winter storm).
Hodge does an efficient job transforming Cooper's sometimes rambling narrative into a screenplay with an episodic structure whose video game feel should retain the attention of teen audiences. He adds a few action-horror elements, some family drama, and a hint of adolescent romance.
But with the mythological background pared down, the film, under the direction of David L Cunningham (TV mini-series The Path To 9/11), ends up feeling rushed and lacking in atmosphere. And the story's mythology comes across as being sillier and more confusing than it was on the page.
Ludwig (previously seen in several straight-to-video children's films) is personable but lacking in presence. McShane (most recently from Deadwood) and Eccleston (28 Days Later and the new Dr Who) deliver, respectively, the requisite comfort and menace, and they are supported by a cast that includes a number of familiar British and American character actors.
CGI effects are employed relatively sparingly and those that are used are not up to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings standards. Cunningham compensates for the dearth by using a lot of slow motion footage and fast cutting.
Romanian locations stand in - not very convincingly, to anyone familiar with rural Britain - for the English settings.
David L Cunningham
Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox
Director of photography