The Golden Compass (2007) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some intense violence
Running time: 113 min.
Cast: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ben Walker, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Freddie Highmore (voice), Ian McKellen (voice), Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Ian McShane (voice), Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas (voice), Kathy Bates (voice), Derek Jacobi
Director: Chris Weitz
Screenplay: Chris Weitz (based on the novel by Philip Pullman, also known as "Northern Lights")
The first in a proposed trilogy of films based on the novels ("His Dark Materials") by Philip Pullman kicks off to a mediocre beginning, suffering from comparisons to the other major fantasy epics of the previous decade, while not exactly being satisfying on its own even for genre fanatics. Although marketed as some sort of family adventure, the film has drawn its share of criticism for its perceived anti-Catholic themes, while also derided by the fans of the books for stripping away much of the story's power by watering down the potency of said religious content in order to be more palatable to a wider audience. To these fans, I suppose there is a healthy irony in knowing that this books about separate souls that exist outside one's body would have its own soul separated by typical big studio, big money thinking.
The story revolves around Lyra (Richards), a young orphan girl who lives with her uncle (Craig, The Invasion) on a world in one of the infinite universes that exist parallel to our own. In this universe, people don't have souls within themselves, but rather, they exist outside of their body in the form of some sort of talking, shape-shifting animal, called a daemon. Her land is ruled by the intolerant religious regime known as the Magisterium. Lyra is kidnapped by one of the Magisterium leaders, Marisa Coulter (Kidman, Happy Feet), but manages to escape with the help of some friends, who are set to wage some sort of war on the Magisterium before they completely dominate the planet and everyone in it.
I'm guessing that the audience which will enjoy The Golden Compass is going to be among those who also enjoyed the very similarly-presented first Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Both films have child protagonists in an enchanted land filled with religious imagery and talking animals, so if that's all it takes these days to keep you enthralled, then by all means have at it. Seasoned movie-goers will probably find much of this adventure to be too routine to find intellectually stimulating, and even younger children may have some problems with a few of the more intense scenes of violence that occur later in the film. It is PG-13 for a reason, but I suppose if you can watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this semi-cutesy fantasy shouldn't be too much of a burden.
One saving grace of the film is that it comes in at under two hours in length. Given the amount of characters and lands to see, that doesn't exactly work in its favor, but given the fact that the movie as a whole is overly-familiar for most who've sat through the many hours of LoTR, Harry Potter, and the plethora of other fantasy films trying to capitalize on the current cycle, we don't really need lengthy introductions. Nevertheless, outside of the main protagonist, Lyra, we're barely given any sort of background into any character or his/her motivation, except in the most broad and clichéd of ways. Cowboys, witches, Egyptians, giant polar bears and many other character types are mish-mashed together like some sort of amalgamation of children's favorite fodder, but there's just no explanation as to why this world supports such characters and how they have gotten to be what they have become from an anthropologic standpoint.
I would say that the fans of the book series who have been deriding the film for diluting the religious aspects have a legitimate bone to pick. If this film isn't going to be an allegory for the Catholic church, or at least of religion in general, then it has nothing else going for it of interest. Scenes come and go without any major rooting interest, while the more Lyra explores this vast world she lives in, the less sense we can make of it as viewers. Writer-director Weitz (About a Boy) churns out new locales and wild, wacky peoples to encounter, and yet, once we spot something that could be interesting, we're whisked off to another set of circumstances to hold our ever-lessening attention for a spell.
Glorious special effects and quality actors can't elevate this feebly constructed tale to be the whimsical, magical experience to last for all time that Weitz intends. When you can't please the fans of the original work, you can't win over the book's detractors, and you can't gain any new fans, I'd say, the film is an out-and-out failure for just about anyone who comes into it with any sort of expectations. Like many other films that are built up to be the first in a series, there's no closure at the end (in fact, Weitz intentionally excised the book's final chapters in order to be the beginning of the second film, should this entry prove lucrative), but I doubt, even if the film makes its $150 million budget back, most will come back for another two hours of characters they barely know fighting a war they care next to nothing about. Perhaps Weitz himself needs his own version of a golden compass, if only so that he could have had at least some sense of direction.
©2007 Vince Leo