When Mike Newell made the transition from directing character-focused fare like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco to the fantasy blockbuster Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the results were surprisingly consistent with the quality of his earlier work. Now American Pie and About a Boy director Chris Weitz has taken on the first installment in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series of fantasy novels, The Golden Compass (née Northern Lights), but the transition is not nearly as smooth.
In a parallel universe where people's souls live on the outside in the form of talking CG animals, precocious young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) embarks on a journey to discover the fate of a group of missing children while being pursued by Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), an agent of a powerful organization known as the Magisterium. On the way, she encounters fightin' polar bears, randy witches, and unkepmt nomads. Epic battles and heroic efforts ensue.
The bar for fantasy has been set pretty high by the likes of Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. You have to be able to bring it with tight action, elegant exposition, smart dialogue, and compelling characters in engaging relationships. Unfortunately, Compass doesn't hit all those notes. It's clear that Weitz is not an action director. The beats are repetitive, with the set-up/payoff of a character in imminent danger suddenly saved from off-screen pounded into the ground. The exposition, while not exactly clunky, is unimaginative and rote. The same could be said for the dialogue. And the characters are so archetypal as to generate no feeling. Of course, the characters in most fantasy adaptations are archetypes, but Rings and Narnia, among others, demonstrate that solid scripting and nuanced performances can counter that shortcoming.
That's not to say that The Golden Compass is a bad film, per se. It's actually quite enjoyable at times. Coulter's monkey-soul could probably head up his own movie, and the whole steampunk vibe is delightfully rendered. But the whole thing ends up feeling like a shadow of a what a great fantasy adaptation should be. Even the closing song, basically a slowed-down version of "Running Up That Hill" with "Lyra" repeated over and over again with a "and her soul" thrown in every now and then, sounds like a parody of a fantasy film theme.