THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING

PG

-By Frank Lovece


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Based on the second book in British author Susan Cooper's series of young-adult novels—winner of the 1974 Newberry Honor, a runner-up to the Newberry Medal—this old-fashioned, family-friendly coming-of-age film is eminently suitable for children, provided those children are Amish. While much is commendable in The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, evoking the innocent charm and pleasure of those old “Hallmark Hall of Fame” children's specials, only children who have never been exposed to Star Wars, the Cartoon Network, videogames or 21st-century media in general could likely sit still through this ponderous, clumping fantasy with confusing and seemingly contradictory internal logic. Released in the wake of the Harry Potter movies and such fantasy epics as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and the underwhelming Eragon (2006) and Bridge to Terabithia (2007), this by-the-numbers exercise comes alive only when Ian McShane, as an avuncular mentor who doesn't really "get" kids, comes onscreen.

The standard puberty-allegory story finds 14-year-old Will Stanton (the bland yet annoying Alexander Ludwig) transplanted with his American family to a picture-perfect English village near London. And quite a family it is: five older brothers, one younger sister, and a mom and dad (Wendy Crewson and John Benjamin Hickey) with a tragic secret. Sad-sack dad, a physics professor, has had trouble keeping a job, hence the move to England (played by Romania).

Will, as is standard in kids’ stories, feel put-upon, picked-on and ordinary. Nobody understands what he's going through—even before he gets shanghaied into a mall-basement office by two security guards who evidently learned interrogation technique at Guantánamo and who turn into vicious, clawing crow-monsters that can only be stopped by…the doors back into the mall! Whew! Will later learns that mistress of the local manor Miss Greythorne (the marvelous, Maggie Smith-like Frances Conroy, late of "Six Feet Under"); her servant Merriman Lyon (McShane); and village handymen George (Jim Piddock) and Mr. Dawson (James Cosmo) are "Old Ones" who fight for the light against the evil Rider (Christopher Eccleston, another highlight), who wants to bring darkness upon the Earth. Why? Who knows? Just because.

Will, of course, turns out to be the latest Old One, who must collect six signs in order to beat the Rider. That job takes Will variously through time—which is easier to swallow that a series of silly plot points such as a marauding Viking who, after brutally pillaging a town, doesn't steal but trades his shield for Will's watch! This is the kind of movie where visibly supernatural things are happening, and yet the hero, for no reason, refuses to say what's going on and no one acts like anything's out of the ordinary.

Director David L. Cunningham—who directed the 2005 Disney TV adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder's novel Little House on the Prairie and the right-wing whitewash The Path to 9/11, and is the son of the founder of the evangelical Youth with a Mission group and the unaccredited University of the Nations—does offer some wonderfully stylistic, disorienting angles and lenses that give the film visual verve, and cinematographer Joel Ransom's work is sumptuous and sometimes stunning. Unfortunately, it's in the service of a clumsy and tedious tale.


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