Golden Compass, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Golden Compass, the long awaited cinematic adaptation of Philip Pullman's well-respected novel, is an adequate but not inspired translation of the source material. Writer/director Chris Weitz (one of the American Pie guys) brings a style that is more obligatory than deft. Constrained by a rushed feel and too little character development, this movie never seems to flow quite right. Passages of dense exposition are interspersed with impressively staged action/adventure sequences but the experience as a whole is less than what movies like The Lord of the Rings have shown us that fantasy adaptations can provide. One key missing element: the world in which this story takes place never feels unique. We aren't drawn into it the way we were with Middle Earth or Hogwarts. In fact, with all the airships flying around, there are times when it feels like an extension of Stardust.

The Golden Compass is the story of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) and how she learns to accept what is special about her. An orphan whose only living relative is the powerful, respected Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), she is hand-picked by the cool, beautiful Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to accompany her on a trip to the north. Lrya is hopeful of seeing the ice bears but, before she can depart, her best friend, Roger (Ben Walker), disappears, captured by a mysterious organization known only as "The Gobblers." And, in strict confidence, she is given an "alethiometer" (which looks like a golden compass) by the Master of Jordan College. It will reveal the truth of things to her, but she must not let Mrs. Coulter know she possesses it.

Life with Mrs. Coulter isn't all Lyra dreamed it would be and, following a violent incident, she runs away. This begins her quest to find and rescue Roger - an endeavor that earns her a number of extraordinary companions, including the armored ice bear Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellan), an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), the Gyptian king John Faa (Jim Carter), and the witch queen Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green). Their goal sets them directly in opposition to the men who would deny the populace free will, and Mrs. Coulter still has a part to play in Lyra's development as a person.

Two of the more unique ideas employed in the His Dark Material trilogy (of which The Golden Compass is the first volume) are the concepts of daemons and dust. Characters in this universe do not have souls in a traditional sense. Instead, they are accompanied by animal familiars that are living embodiments of their souls. And "dust" is a metaphysical concept that makes possible the travel between universes. It's the thing most feared by the ruling power since it challenges those men's ultimate authority.

The film's final 45 minutes, which feature several rousing battle sequences (including an all-CGI bear-on-bear affair), will wake up those who have dozed off by that time. For the most part, The Golden Compass' first hour can be a struggle to sit through. The characters are sketchily developed and many of the things about which Pullman can go into great depth in the novel are glossed over in the movie. The compromises made to get this on screen are easy to identify but it's questionable whether they have resulted in a better product.

Nicole Kidman, supposedly Pullman's personal choice for Mrs. Coulter, understands what it takes to play an ice queen. She could have been the witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She has plenty of screen time and, although she never shines, she captures the conflicted essence of the character. Her big-name co-star, Daniel Craig, hardly has more than a glorified cameo. There are two other venerable actors with even less visibility: Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee as Magesterial officials. Lee's old Lord of the Rings buddy, Ian McKellan, is also along for the ride, although this time, he's only doing voice work. Sam Elliott seems a little out of place, although one wonders how the character would have fared if Pullman's choice, Samuel L. Jackson, had been cast. Finally, there's newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who shows pluck and spirit but isn't the best young actress to grace the screen in the last ten years.

The religious controversy surrounding the movie amounts to much ado about nothing. Yes, Philip Pullman is an atheist and there are atheist themes in the book. They don't make it to the movie, which ignores religion altogether and makes the story about the exercise of free will against tyranny. His Dark Materials is no more a bible for atheists than The Chronicles of Narnia is a Christian tract. Both stories were influenced by the philosophies of their respective authors but each can stand on its own without looking too deeply into the subtext.

New Line Cinema is desperately hoping His Dark Materials will represent their next The Lord of the Rings. They would like nothing better than for The Golden Compass to have a huge opening weekend that demands the greenlighting of a sequel. I wonder whether that's a reasonable expectation, however. The Golden Compass is a vastly different property from The Lord of the Rings. It is not epic fantasy. It takes place in a world that's more Dickens than Middle Earth. There are no dragons or orcs or trolls or wizards. There are no clashes between armies of thousands. There is not a complete immersion for the viewer in another world. The Lord of the Rings is simple, visceral fantasy. The Golden Compass is shrouded in philosophy and ideas. About the only things the two first volumes have in common is that they are quest-oriented and they can be found in the same section of the bookstore.

I hope The Subtle Knife is made. I would like to see how the cinematic version of the trilogy evolves, and the end of The Golden Compass makes it clear there's more of the story to tell. (The stopping point chosen by Weitz, which isn't the same as the end of the book, makes as clean and upbeat an ending as one could hope for.) One senses that many of the problems evident in The Golden Compass result from the difficulties inherent in introducing viewers not only to new characters but to new ideas and a new world. With those birth pains behind, hopefully the second movie will build upon the strengths of the first and provide a fully satisfying motion picture experience.

Golden Compass, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2007)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1