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'His Dark Materials' casts barely bearable light on fantasy series

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By Brian Lowry, CNN

Undaunted by "The Golden Compass" failing to find the north star, "His Dark Materials" takes another swing -- and miss -- at adapting Philip Pullman's novels, this time as a BBC and HBO series. Coming on the heels of "Watchmen," it's another notable post-movie effort to build a series around a literary property, yielding (in this case) a paper-thin result.

"Compass" opened a dozen years ago, two years before "Watchmen" hit theaters. Despite a good cast (Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig), it fizzled, leaving the story -- and franchise -- hanging.

Having eight hour-long chapters might seem like a way to do the book justice in all its detail, but as executed in this British production, the extra hours simply mean slowly grinding along, without prodding the material -- dark or otherwise -- out of its sense of lethargy.

That leaves behind a handsome but flat production based on viewing four of those hours, which include what amount to cameos by James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda and a talking, armor-plated polar bear, none of which is enough to salvage things.

The story remains both simple -- a young girl, Lyra ("Logan's" Dafne Keen), who is destined for great things, according to prophecy -- and convoluted. The subplots include the mysterious abduction of children, people in this world traveling about with spirit animals called daemons and the shadowy machinations of ruling cabal known as the Magisterium.

"I hereby evoke the privilege of scholastic sanctuary!" McAvoy's character, Lord Asriel, awkwardly proclaims as he dumps the baby Lyra at a school as a haven, before being forced to flee by his heretical ideas.

Lyra is the unexplained linchpin of the grand forces at work, and comes under the protection of Mrs. Coulter, played by "The Affair's" Ruth Wilson, who does more than anyone to make "Dark Materials" (pardon the expression) bearable. Yet even with her malevolent presence, the whole thing tends to be a rollicking bore -- pretty to look at in terms of its production design, but too room-bound and talky to feel like an epic, certainly compared to the mother of all fantasies to which HBO just said goodbye.

"This is gonna be fun," Miranda, seemingly miscast as the swashbuckling Aeronaut Lee Scoresby, says when he shows up in the fourth hour, before joining Lyra -- and the aforementioned bear -- in embarking on a quest.

For those inclined to stick around, the show might get that point eventually, and plans for a second season are already in the works. But through the first half of this first one, alas, "His Dark Materials" isn't much fun at all.

"His Dark Materials" premieres Nov. 4 at 10 p.m. on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.