October 11, 2007

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The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (PG)
A boy discovers his magical heritage and fights the forces of darkness which, if he fails, could imperil the whole world in The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, a movie which, despite its description, is not about Hogwarts or Muggles or buying J.K. Rowling another gold-plated mansion.

Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) is a nearly 14-year-old American attempting to adjust to life in a small British town where he, his parents, his five brothers and one sister recently moved. Will is the shy one in the family and also, for no apparent reason, the only blond one. He’s kid six with only his little sister Gwen (Emma Lockhart) really looking up to him. He doesn’t even have the confidence to talk to Maggie (Amelia Warner), a mysterious even-newer girl on the school bus who is clearly making eyes at him. When his second-oldest brother comes home for Christmas, Will is even pushed out of his bedroom and left to bunk in the attic, where he contemplates his angsty feelings of not-fitting-in-ness and left-out-itude.

On his birthday, just a few days before Christmas, strange things start to happen. The family dogs bark at him, he sees swirly shapes everywhere, strangers seem to know a lot about him and crows stare at him and caw ominously.

Dude, crows. As I’ve mentioned before, in movies crows = evil and so personally I wouldn’t have needed, as Will does, two mall security officers to turn into crows before I knew that something was up. One suspicious crow would be enough to convince me that the forces of evil are after me. After being chased by the crow-guards, Will’s pretty freaked out. He becomes even more freaked out when, wandering the grounds of a big manor house where he’s attending a Christmas party, he finds himself chased by a Rider (Christopher Eccleston) who runs him to the ground and, like the crow security guards before him, asks Will to give up “the signs.” Before the Rider gets more insistent with his questioning, Merriman Lyon (Ian McShane), Miss Greythorne (Frances Conroy), Dawson (James Cosmo) and Old George (Jim Piddock) show up and shoo the Rider away. (They pretty much just say “beat it” and the Rider, who as they explain is an earthly representation of the forces of darkness, just leaves. The darkness gives up pretty quickly if you ask me.)

These four, the Old Ones as they call themselves, launch into the story of Will’s magical destiny — he is the Seeker and he can walk through time, which he will need to do to find the signs and collect them to fight back the forces of the dark, which, as the title indicates, is rising. He has powers (but not, as he hoped, flight) and might be able to defeat the Rider once he (Will) has all the signs (which will give him the power of the light) but probably not before.

So like another young man I could mention looking thither and yon for magical whosawhatsits, Will, after some hemming and hawing about whether or not any of this Seeker nonsense is true, begins the search with the help of the Old Ones, battling snakes, an evil general practitioner, winter, puberty and, of course, the crows along the way.

Magic is to children’s stories what ennui about suburban life is to adult fiction. Actually, magic, future-world settings, the supernatural and the other-worldly play such a huge role in story-telling that take them away and pretty much all you have is chick lit and the kind of novels featuring heavy use of the word “zeitgeist.” So it’s not entirely fair of me to compare every recent kids movie, especially this one based on a book written some 30-plus years ago, to the Harry Potter books and its series of movies.

Not fair, but I’m going to do it anyway.

The Seeker feels very much like a discount Harry Potter movie. Harry Potter and the Crows of Evil, maybe, or Harry Potter and the Winter of Our Discontent. Sure, Will has his parents, but there is a dark mystery surrounding his infanthood. He’s not living under the stars but he does feel forgotten in the attic. He’s not 11 (though he is in the book The Dark Is Rising) but he is an awkward, unsure 14. He has a darkness-fighting destiny and powers he knew nothing about. (And, according to Amazon.com, the book The Dark is Rising actually has even more similarities to the Harry Potter series.) Will is the Boy Who Got Knocked Around By His Brothers, fighting He Who Shall Not Infringe Trademark. As derivative as Harry Potter movies themselves can be at times, they never feel quite as low-budget as this mass of overheated writing and underbaked acting. (HBO vets Frances Conroy and Ian McShane, what are you doing here? Can’t you get someone to write another undertaker family/Wild West drama for you? These actors are too good to be wasted on a future of half-baked comedies and second-tier fantasy.)

And why, exactly, does The Seeker feel like such a shoddy knock-off? Scanning the Amazon page for the book on which this movie is apparently (very loosely) based, you get the sense that The Dark is Rising is actually a pretty good kid-adventure read. And that its series (the book is the second) probably has a lot of the same sweep and morality struggles found in the Harry Potter movies. Are this movie’s comparitive weaknesses due to the the fact that the Potter books, which came after but are fresher in modern minds, were more cinematic and easier to adapt? Or is it that this movie’s studio pushed it through development and out onto the screen before it could be fully formed? The choppy story-telling (with scenes of heavy exposition) and uneven pacing make me suspect the latter. C-

Rate PG for fantasy action and some scary images. Directed by David L. Cunningham and written by John Hodge from the book The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (the second in a five-book series), The Seeker: The Dark is Rising is an hour and 38 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Fox-Walden.