This is a tricky review to write. Note the wide discrepancy between numerous one-star and five-star reviews. I feel that though the film is very flawed for different reasons, that it will work for its intended audience of kids 13 and under. For adults, it's a different story. If I could do it here I'd give it 3-stars for adults and the 4-star rating is just for kids. The film makes it because it looks good and is well shot despite a tendency to indulge in odd camera angles, especially from above. The special effects are decent for a film that has a middling budget for a fantasy. The film, especially in the first third is quite good in creating an atmosphere of ominous suspense. What went wrong falls into two very separate categories.
After the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fantasy was the thing as studios tried to find a new series to franchise and make billions. British author Susan Cooper wrote a five book series (of which the second book was titled The Dark Is Rising, which came to be the title of the whole series) in the 1970's. It carefully and expertly wove Arthurian legend and Celtic mythology and along the way won the Newberry and many other awards. I read the whole series around 1980 and enjoyed it. It was relatively big for a fantasy series but not in the league of LOTR or Potter, and was much better known in Britain than America. When it was announced, fans were happy. When it came out, fans were angey, even Susan Cooper was angry. The film is absolutely despised around the Internet by fans of the books. This is not the usual "The book was better..." but rather that virtually everything was changed. By the time the film makers were done the only things they had in common were the subtitle and a few character names. Not only that, but the main character, Will Stanton and his family were changed from English to American, which was probably for box office reasons despite protests to the contrary. All this outrage is justifiable if you are a fan of the books.
But most people haven't read the books, so that shouldn't matter if you can allow it to stand by itself as if it wasn't based on a book series. However it falls down here, too, especially by adults who will notice its shortcomings more than kids. The problems are so numerous that I'll only mention a couple of the main ones. Mostly it's the script. Good actors were hired for most of the parts, especially those playing "The Old Ones" but they do virtually nothing but stand around occasionally adding story exposition, background and explanation when necessary to move the plot along. And for these powerful beings they supposedly are, they literally stand around and do nothing most of the time. The second big problem lies in the quest itself. Will Stanton is "The Seeker" by birth and must find five powerful "Signs" to defeat the Dark. But he just stumbles and bumbles into them: it seems wherever he goes he just happens to find a hidden gateway to another time and once there, just happens to see the Sign and grabs it. And this happens five times! It makes little sense and gets boring quickly; better to have had him find one Sign and make it more challenging.
Christopher Eccleston is rather miscast as "The Rider" the emissary of All Evil Itself or perhaps its personification. They would have done better with a faceless hooded character like the Nazgul. As it was, he seemed more like a highwayman than the Dark Lord. Not so for Alexander Ludwig who really carries the film as much as he can with a limiting script. He seems properly perplexed as a schoolboy suddenly thrust on a quest he neither asked or is prepared for, and has the energy to be the center of the film even if the script does him no favors. He went on to play Cato in the first Hunger Games film and now is Bjorn Lothbrok in The Vikings cable series.
It's hard to imagine that the studio thought they could make a franchise out of this film. Oddly, the production company was the one which had made the Narnia series but hired a director who said he didn't like children's fantasies. in the end they made just another generic fantasy, and a confusing one at that.