In the world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials the human soul is manifested in the form of accompanying animals, known as dæmons.
All manner of CGI leopards, mice, birds, monkeys, squirrels and assorted fauna can be seen running alongside humans, and whatsmore they have the wise voices of Helen McCrory, David Suchet, Cristela Alonzo, Kit Connor.
Borrowing heavy inspiration from steampunk meets Harry Potter, HBO-BBC’s drama begins in Oxford when Lyra (Dafne Keen) is left as an orphan child to The Master (Clarke Peters) of Jordan College. She grows up in a world teeming in education and formalities, but with her sprightly young pal Roger (Lewin Lloyd) is never short of child’s play.
When her Uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) comes to unveil a new discovery, conspiracy theories begin to pervade. Asriel has returned from observing the Northern Lights and uncovered the powers of Dust, which are a threat to the holy-esque Magisterium.
It’s a world of zeppelin airships, canal boat dwellers named Gyptians and child kidnappers known as Goblers. When the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) enters the picture, Lyra is entrusted with a pocket-size alethiometer, an old-fashioned timepiece with the ability to help her ascertain the truth. But soon Asriel will embark on a mission and Roger will vanish, prompting Lyra to leave the relative safety of Oxford and head to London.
The screenplay by Jack Thorne (This Is England, National Treasure, The Accident, Wonder) is quite dense and for those who have not read the novels, it’s a kaleidoscope of ideas. There are times when you probably have to put perplexities to one side and let the spirit of the tale sing. Thankfully there is a visual smorgasboard in the traditions of Harry Potter, Narnia and possibly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to assist.
What’s also encouraging is the diversity in casting, from a black Oxford college master to a community of all kinds of heritage.
Dafne Keen is an aggressively wide-eyed lead while James McAvoy adopts the spirit of a colonial explorer and Ruth Wilson coyly keeps her cards close to her chest. Our CGI animals are a tad selective, seemingly only to accompany principal characters, and not every human that dots the frame.
HBO-BBC warn this adaptation will differ from the 2007 feature The Golden Compass, and possibly from the books themselves. But for those awaiting them, yes there will still be armoured polar bears ready to greet you.
His Dark Materials airs 8:30pm Tuesday on FOX Showcase.