Background: British author Philip Pullman took the U.K. by storm in the late 90's with his massively popular trilogy of books titled "His Dark Materials," the first installment of which was The Golden Compass. Capitalizing on the success of the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia films, Chris Weitz (About a Boy) adapted the book with Pullman over several years and much controversy. The story is by Pullman's own admission a direct counterargument to C.S. Lewis's case for Christianity in the Narnia series. This has of course raised the hackles of many Christians, some of whom have called for a boycott of the film. Starring Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Layer Cake), Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding), Sam Shepard (Hulk, Ghost Rider), and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, The Golden Compass was filmed in Norway, England, and Scandinavia, and features extensive use of computer animation.
Synopsis: Lots going on here. Each human has a "daemon" - a talking animal that embodies the person's soul, and trots alongside them like a lifelong pet. Lyra Belacqua (Richards) is a troublesome young girl who lives as an "orphan" at Jordan College in England. Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Craig) is a dashing scientist who is on the verge of discovering the source of "dust," which binds all the worlds in the universe together, and which (I think) represents free will and/or the Holy Spirit. In the other corner is the Magisterium (the Catholic church), which seeks to control people's behavior and prevent humans from learning about dust by any means necessary, including attempts to dispatch of Lord Asriel. Its chief operative is Marisa Coulter (Kidman), who is leading a research experiment on the North Pole in which "Gyptian" children are kidnapped and inoculated with dust - their daemons are stripped from them, and they are forever the submissive property of the Magisterium. Back to Lyra: she attains a Ouija-board-like "alethiometer" - a divine truth-telling compass that can only be read by the child (her, of course) who will fulfill the prophesy of "the witches." (Does EVERY fantasy story have to have a "chosen one"?) On her quest to infiltrate and destroy the Magisterium's research experiment, Lyra befriends the wily aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Shepard) and the armored bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), who has a score to settle with the illegitimate bear king Ragnar Sturlusson. Several surprisingly violent battles follow, and Lyra heroically frees the kidnapped children before setting off to save Lord Asriel (her father - gasp!), but not before the obligatory "war to end all wars" is prophesied by the witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green from Casino Royale). More to come in the next installment of the trilogy...
+ The visual effects - start the debate, because these are the best I've seen in any movie this year.
+ Dakota Blue Richards - and the other child actors, for that matter. She likely has a successful career ahead of her, and is not obnoxiously precocious like Dakota Fanning.
- Sam Shepard, who showed up right off the set of Tombstone. "I reckoned you fellers was in some kind of trouble." What? Are you Virgil Earp or an "aeronaut" in a British religious fantasy film? The character of Lee Scoresby, by the way, was apparently originally intended for Samuel L. Jackson.
- That seemingly none of the characters could put two and two together: people's daemons represent their core psyche. Helloooo? The daemons of the children and "good" people are cute puppies, mice, kittens, sparrows, and rabbits. The daemons of the "evil" people are wolves, snakes, crows, and evil monkeys. Lyra, don't go in that door! His daemon is a preying mantis!
- The Gyptians - are they gypsies? Pirates? Egyptians? Why are they always hiding?
- The alethiometer - how exactly does it work again?
- Nicole Kidman's daemon - part Gollum, part evil monkey from "The Family Guy," part Gremlin, and part Satan-baby from The Passion of the Christ. I thought daemons were supposed to be regular animals? And what, hers is the ONLY one that can't talk?
- That the end of the polar bear faceoff was a reenactment of the climactic George McFly vs. Biff Tannen scene from Back to the Future.
- The most tacked-on cliffhanger ending in a long time - "We have so much to do! This, this, this, this, that, and this! Just try and stop us...in the next movie!" OK, I'm paraphrasing, but still...
Writing - 7
Acting - 8
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 4
Significance - 4
Total: 32/50= 74% = C
Last Word: I've not read any of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, but what I've gathered so far is that the books are quite dark, and the themes of The Golden Compass have been toned down to make a more kid-friendly film. Further exploration of "dust" and the history of the Magisterium would certainly make for a more thought-provoking movie, but I don't think even that could save what is really just a poorly told story. The plot is fairly predictable and conveniently contrived in all the usual scenes. There is no subtlety to the evil of the "bad" characters, and we don't even know anything about the heroes - Lyra and Lord Asriel. Worst of all, the casting of the Gyptians and Sam Shepard seem completely out of place. The saving grace of the production is the dazzling display of visual effects, which are not necessarily better than those in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, but are more impressive here because they're used in almost every single shot. Regarding the religious aspects of the movie (and I'll admit I'm biased by my own convictions), it seems to me Pullman is not necessarily promoting atheism so as much as he is promoting the destruction of organized religion, particularly Catholicism. Though it may be simplified from the book, the symbolism is still quite clear, as muddled as his argument may be. Looking at it as a kid's movie, The Golden Compass seems dark, bleak, and hopeless. I'll stick with The Chronicles of Narnia, thank you very much.