The Movie Review: 'The Golden Compass'

"The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally an infantile work," Philip Pullman famously told The New Yorker back in 2005, drawing an unflattering comparison to his own epic fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. "Tolkien is not interested in the way grown-up, adult human beings interact with each other. He's interested in maps and plans and languages and codes."

It is a cutting assessment, but one that may be dulled by the release of The Golden Compass, the first film based on Pullman's trilogy. The obsessive attention Tolkien brought to Middle Earth--its empires and economies, geography and genealogies, languages and literature--may have proved tiresome to some, but when Peter Jackson decided to bring The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, he had an immensely sturdy foundation upon which to build.

By contrast, Chris Weitz, who adapted and directed The Golden Compass, didn't have much to work with beyond the basic plot of the novel, which--as Pullman's quote proudly suggests--doesn't waste a whole lot of time providing extraneous context. Moreover, Weitz himself, best known for American Pie and About a Boy, is not the kind of cinematic visionary who excels at the creation of alternative universes. It is no great surprise, then, that The Golden Compass, while not a bad movie, is one that fails at perhaps the most crucial challenge of fantasy: creating a fully realized world, with its own internal rules and logic, in which viewers may lose themselves.

Though it has been largely bleached of Pullman's aggressively antireligious message, Weitz's film still follows the form of a kind of anti-Narnia: Eleven-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan being raised at Jordan College, sneaks into a wardrobe in one of its meeting rooms. But rather than tumble into a magical new world, she merely peeps back into the room, witnessing the near-poisoning of her uncle, Lord Asriel (an underutilized Daniel Craig). In her spying, she also learns of a mysterious, otherwordly substance called Dust, which grown-ups--and in particular the church-cum-evil-empire government called the Magisterium--wish to keep a secret. (As Lyra is later lectured, "Dust is a subject never to be spoken of," an attitude shared by several of my college roommates.)

Lord Asriel announces that he's traveling to the frozen north to investigate Dust and the possibility it holds the key to visiting other worlds; Lyra, to her frustration, is forbidden to come. But soon she meets the beautiful, mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) who takes Lyra under her wing with the promise of an arctic trip of their own. It's not long before Lyra finds herself entangled with kind Gyptians and cruel Tatars, flying witches and warrior bears--not to mention the mysterious abductions of a series of children, perhaps taken to be the subjects of some terrible experiment.

The film has its pleasures. Richards is sharp and appealing as Lyra, and Kidman is perfectly (if obviously) cast as the friendly-yet-frigid Mrs. Coulter. (Note to readers who worry they may one day find themselves in a fantasy novel: If a young, beautiful woman insists on being called "Mrs.," she's probably evil.) The giant dirigible that offers nonstop service from Jordan College to London is lovely, and the battle for a kingship between armored polar bears voiced by Ian McKellen and Ian McShane is appropriately rowdy, even if I kept waiting for Gandalf to stop screwing around and become human again.

Best of all are the daemons, the small animal forms that are attached to all human beings and contain their souls. For children, they change shape frequently (Lyra's daemon, Pan, is partial to moth and ermine), but by adulthood they settle on a single species, typically illustrative of their owner's character (for Asriel, a fierce but noble snow leopard; for Coulter, a wicked monkey). Weitz's digitized daemons are the film's signal success, an element wondrous yet so persuasive that they soon feel almost commonplace.

Unfortunately, little else in the film works as smoothly. The plot follows its assigned course fairly well--with the exception of the novel's brutal conclusion, which has been sliced off, presumably to open the sequel--but it lacks connective tissue. Lyra is at Jordan College, on a blimp, at Mrs. Coulter's house, on a boat, in a Norway port town, etc., but the jumps feel choppy, with little sense that the characters (and we) are progressing through space or time.

The entire film feels rushed in this way, a succession of sets and encounters that do what they have to do, but skimp on the sorts of texture and context (character development, sense of place) that can bring a fiction, particularly one as fantastical as this, fully to life. There's something strangely business-like about the whole enterprise, as if any scene that does not have a clear and crucial purpose, that would merely add a bit of further background or an unexpected glimpse of personality, has been cut.

This is particularly awkward given that Pullman doesn't set his tale in a semi-familiar medieval fantasy world, but rather in one that borrows from varied periods and genres, with its first-class blimps and talking bears, Texan aeronauts and Samoyed kidnappers. Characters, nationalities, professions, species--magical and otherwise--enter and exit the tale with almost no sense of motive, history, or place within the larger universe.

And then, abruptly, it's over. In this era of cinematic bloat, I generally find a picture that can have me headed for the exit in under two hours worthy of congratulation. But the brevity of The Golden Compass is a frustration rather than a relief. No sooner does one start to feel situated in the world it has conjured than the lights are coming up. (I suspect this feeling will be still more pronounced for viewers unfamiliar with the book.) Unlike many inflated Hollywood offerings, this is supposed to be an epic, the inheritor (however grudging) of the Lord of the Rings mantle. Moreover, at an estimated price tag of $180 million, its per-second financial burn rate may be the highest in cinematic history. The producers may question whether they got their money's worth--and viewers probably will, too.

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