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Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writing Credits:
Jack Thorne

A young girl is destined to liberate her world from the grip of the Magisterium which represses people's ties to magic and their animal spirits known as daemons.

Rated TV-14.

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 460 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 8/4/2020

• “Adapting His Dark Materials” Featurette
• “Building His Dark Materials” Featurette
• “Dressing His Dark Materials” Featurette
• “The Daemons of His Dark Materials” Featurette
• “Bringing Lord Asriel to Life” Featurette
• “Bringing Lee Scoresby to Life” Featurette
• “Bringing Mrs. Coulter to Life” Featurette
• “Bringing Lyra Belacqua to Life” Featurette
• “Making His Dark Materials” Featurette


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His Dark Materials: The Complete First Season [Blu-Ray] (2019)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 2, 2020)

Back in the 1990s, Philip Pullman authored a fantasy trilogy under the banner His Dark Materials. This property came to the BBC in the UK and HBO in the US in 2019 via a limited-run series logically entitled His Dark Materials.

Here’s how the Blu-ray set summarizes the series:

“Left as a baby at Oxford’s Jordan College, Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) desires a life of adventure beyond her bookish surroundings. While searching for a missing friend, she uncovers a plot involving stolen children and embarks on a dangerous quest that will change her life forever.”

This two-Blu-ray package includes all episodes for the show’s first season. The plot synopses come from the official HBO website.

Lyra’s Jordan: “Orphan Lyra Belacqua's world is upended by her long-absent uncle Lord Asriel’s (James McAvoy) return from the North.”

“Jordan” acts to introduce us to the story’s world, so it comes heavy on exposition. That seems standard for opening episodes, as they exist mainly to give us plot/character basics and not much more.

In that realm, “Jordan” feels decent. It throws a lot at us and makes reasonable sense of the elements, though I can’t claim it makes me tremendously interested to see where matters progress. This feels like an adequate opening program that does what it needs to do.

The Idea of North: “Lyra arrives to her new life in London, determined to find Roger (Lewin Lloyd) with Mrs. Coulter's (Ruth Wilson) help.”

I accepted that “Jordan” became a bit of a slog since it needed to provide so much exposition. I hoped “North” would rebound with a more dynamic and engaging story.

Nope. “North” offers a reveal that seems premature, and it doesn’t offer a particularly compelling narrative push. 25 percent of the way into the season and I can’t claim I feel especially absorbed in the tale.

The Spies: “Following her kidnapping, Lyra falls in with a new group, but struggles to know who to trust.”

Perhaps eventually I’ll understand the series’ use of “daemons”, as perhaps these animals bonded to humans will make real sense at some point. As of now, they feel like a cheap plot device, one that doesn’t add to the narrative.

Speaking of cheap devices, another reveal occurs here, one that comes as no surprise whatsoever. I continue to hope Materials will get exciting and absorbing at some point, but I remain left cold through the first three shows.

Armour: “Arriving North, Lyra seeks allies in the witches, an aeronaut and an armored bear.”

With “Armour”, we find two hints that the series might finally show signs of life. For one, we see Iorek the bear, which fulfills the promise of the Blu-ray’s cover – and the furry character seems like he could become an interesting personality.

In addition, a slick guy named Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) debuts, and he breaks from the series’ tradition of dour, mopey characters. Known for his musicals, Miranda seems like an odd fit for the role – especially due to a fairly lousy Texas accent - but he adds actual spark to the dull proceedings.

Much of “Armour” still sticks with the usual semi-monotony. However, I’ll take the episode’s push in the right direction and hope the second half of the season entertains more than the first.

The Lost Boy: “The alethiometer sends Lyra and Iorek (Joe Tandberg) on a new path, leading to a shocking but vital clue.”

Not mentioned in that synopsis, “Boy” introduces an apparently important new character: Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a teen whose path seems tied to Lyra’s. It feels a little odd to get a major role halfway through the season, but since Will didn’t enter until the second of the three novels, this makes sense.

I wish I could say Will’s presence helps Season One continue the upward trend we saw with “Armour”, but unfortunately, he comes across as yet another bland personality in a series packed with them. A few aspects of “Boy” show promise but the episode disappoints after the moderately compelling “Armour”.

The Daemon-Cages: “Lyra finds what she was looking for in the far North, but can she survive?”

After the introduction of Will, he goes MIA for “Cages”, a choice that seems like a mistake. If we expect to see him as a prominent participant, it feels off to abandon him so soon.

Despite that perplexing decision, “Cages” works a bit better than usual, as the facility where authorities keep kids offers some drama and tension. Though it throws in a little more melodrama than I’d prefer, “Cages” rebounds after the blah “Boy”.

The Fight to the Death: “Now alone, Lyra must use her methods of deception to outwit a formidable foe.”

With little time left in Season One, “Death” manages to ramp up the action in a moderately satisfying manner. The show still has too many plot threads that feel extraneous, but the episode packs a decent punch, so it pushes toward the finale well.

Betrayal: “As the Magisterium closes in, Lyra assists Asriel's efforts, but at a great personal cost.”

Season One concludes inconclusively via “Betrayal”, which one should expect, given that we know we’ll get a second season of Materials. This feels a little cheap, as even without the ability to formally wrap up story/character domains, S1 could finish on a less cliffhanging note.

Still, at least the second half of the season showed signs of promise. I view S1 as a disappointment, for too much of the year seemed to meander and lack impact. However, we get enough intriguing material across the final four shows to point toward potential improvements for S2.

The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B+/ Bonus C

His Dark Materials appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on these Blu-ray Discs. The series came with high-quality visuals.

In general, definition seemed positive. A little softness occasionally interfered with interiors, but the majority of the elements came across as accurate and concise.

No signs of jagged edges or shimmering materialized. I also saw no signs of source defects.

In an unsurprising movie, orange and teal dominated the palette. These hues remained predictable but still well-rendered.

Blacks seemed appealing, and low-light shots presented nice clarity. The visuals satisfied.

The series’ DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio also fared well, and the episodes offered a good mix of action elements. These used the various speakers to involve us with material such as magical elements, vehicles and the like. Throw in prominent use of music and the soundscape involved us well.

Audio quality appeared solid, with speech that came across as natural and distinctive. Music portrayed bold, lively material as well.

Effects worked nicely, as they offered vivid, accurate information with taut low-end. The audio added to the experience.

Nine featurettes flesh out the package, eight of which appear on Disc One. Adapting His Dark Materials runs four minutes, four seconds and delivers notes from novelist Philip Pullman, executive producer Jane Tranter, screenwriter Jack Thorne, and actors James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dafne Keen.

As implied by the title, this piece offers some notes about the novels’ path to the screen. It offers a few good notes, but much of it tends toward fluff.

Building His Dark Materials goes for five minutes, 54 seconds and offers remarks from Miranda, McAvoy, Wilson, Keen, production designer Joel Collins, and actors Anne-Marie Duff, Lucian Msamati, Mat Fraser, and James Cosmo.

“Building” examines sets, locations and design choices. Like the first show, this one gives us some insights but emphasizes praise.

Next comes Dressing His Dark Materials, a three-minute, 15-second piece with Duff, Wilson, McAvoy, Keen, Miranda, costume designer Caroline McCall, and actors Ruta Gedmintas and Daniel Frogson. We learn about the series’ clothes in this decent overview.

The Daemons of His Dark Materials fills three minutes, 43 seconds with statements from Miranda, Cosmo, Duff, Keen, McAvoy, Wilson, Tranter, Msamata, creature effects William Todd-Jones and VFX supervisor Russell Rodgson.

“Daemons” tells us about the representation of the series’ animal characters. It becomes a short but efficient featurette.

After this, we find four actor-centric featurettes: Bringing Lord Asriel to Life (3:17), Bringing Lee Scoresby to Life (2:25), Bringing Mrs. Coulter to Life (3:24) and Bringing Lyra Belacqua to Life (4:26). Across these, we hear from McAvoy, Miranda, Wilson and Keen.

Here the actors discuss their characters and their approaches to them. Though these exist for promotional reasons, they offer a reasonable amount of useful information.

On Disc Two, we get The Making of His Dark Materials, a 33-minute, 11-second program that includes notes from Wilson, McAvoy, Miranda, Keen, Collins, McCall, Thorne, Tranter, Pullman, Cosmo, Duff, Msamati, Gedmintas, Dodgson, Todd-Jones, Fraser, puppet captain Brian Fisher, animation archive researcher Laurence Whitaker, director Otto Bathurst, actor Joe Tanburg and VFX art director/pre-vis supervisor Dan May.

“Making” examines the novels and their adaptation, story/characters, cast and performances, sets and locations, effects and the depiction of animals, costumes and related domains.

Expect a fair amount of repetition from Disc One’s featurettes. “Making” comes from the same interview sessions and often reuses the same comments.

Still, even with the redundant material, “Making” becomes a pretty good summary of the production. It adds enough new information to deserve a look, and it seems less promotional than Disc One’s segments.

Based on popular fantasy novels, His Dark Materials occasionally shows signs of life. However, it too often comes across like a mix of influences from other works, and it only fitfully develops into an interesting narrative. The Blu-rays come with very good picture and audio as well as a decent array of bonus materials. Hopefully Season Two will provide a more consistent experience.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 1
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