December 08, 2007

The Golden Compass

Are you the one who married my ex-husband?

Grade: D –
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Ian McKellen, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Kathy Bates
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

The Golden Compass
is adapted from author Philip Pullman’s 1995 award-winning children’s novel Northern Lights, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. The best advice for fans and novices alike, however, is to hit the books. Anyone looking to fall in love with the series via its film adaptation might need a compass to first locate the plot, and then the exit door to the theater.

Perhaps I am getting too old, but I have had my fill of fantasy films full of creatures with unpronounceable names trekking throughout unpronounceable places in search of mystical rings, relics, and sundry other baubles. Newcomers to Pullman’s source novels (including myself) will find mind-numbing the endless prattle about “Gobblers,” “gyptians,” “dæmons,” and mysterious particles of “Dust” bombinating about the parallel Earth setting.

The story, such as it is, focuses around Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, and it shows), an 11-year-old orphan who, like all children, is constantly accompanied by her dæmon, an animal-formed, shape-shifting manifestation of her soul (hers is voiced by Freddie Highmore). For some reason, children are being kidnapped by a group called the Gobblers, who are transporting them to a facility in Arctic facsimile Bolvangar to develop ways to separate the moppets from their outer-dæmon. For some reason, everyone, especially Gobbler heavy Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman plus her vacillating English accent), really wants to get their hands on Lyra and a truth-saying alethiometer (or compass) only she seems able to divine. For some reason, Daniel Craig plays a scholar and Lyca’s relative who gets pinched during the film’s first half and is barely heard from again.

I have not even gotten to the brood of eternally youthful witches, an aw-shucks aeronaut played by Sam Elliott, and a pack of talking armored bears led by lorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) who, thanks to the subpar CGI throughout the film, usually resemble the Coca-Cola polar bears. And, do not forget the sinister Magisterium, the omnipresent controlling authority we know is evil because their leaders wear long, dark robes and look like Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee. Even the film’s main controversy turns out to be mundane: the book’s infamous anti-Catholic subtext has been watered down from its fairly direct indictment of organized religion.

Confused yet? Do not worry – you will actually know less about the storyline after the film than you did before the opening credits began rolling. Much of the blame lies in a chaotic production history and lazy filmmaking. Two directors took the reigns three different times until settling on Chris Weitz (About a Boy), whose lack of epic special effects experience shows in virtually every scene. Even at nearly two hours, the pacing is erratic and the editing is choppy. Characters and concepts are barely developed past the point of introduction and there is little coherent scene transition.

The entire spectacle feels both perfunctory and derivative – echoes of Lord of the Rings, Oz, Harry Potter, and Narnia reverberate, the latter being ironic since Pullman has referred to his book series the “anti-Narnia.” Moreover, Weitz moved the final three chapters of Northern Lights to the beginning of the film sequel, The Subtle Knife, leaving a finale that is not only unsatisfactory but highly presumptuous. Golden Compass did leave me longing to journey to a parallel universe – the one where this is actually a good movie.

Neil Morris

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