In the weeks and months leading up to the release of The Golden Compass, it was hard to escape reading about how the Catholic League was calling for a boycott of the film. I guess it was to be expected. The fantasy novel's author, Philip Pullman, is an atheist and the series does take the Catholic Church and authority in general to task, more so as the series progresses. Of course, I cannot lay claim to any firsthand knowledge having not read the books.
Still, I found the concerns of the film encouraging kids around the nation, and the world, to turn away from God and give up on religion to be a little extreme. After all, it is only a story. Fiction only has as much power as we give it, and I think that the League's giving it a little more than it deserves. How about a little faith in the parents' ability to correctly raise and guide their children? Better yet, how about the fast-maturing children's ability to educate themselves and make up their own minds with regards to their beliefs? I fear I have gone on too long about this, in turn giving them more power and attention than they deserve. On to the movie proper!
You know what they say about power: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." At least, that is how I think it goes, but no matter, I am sure you know what I am talking about. It is this concept that lies at the heart of The Golden Compass, a movie that burns through its plot like there's no tomorrow.
Young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards making her big screen debut) is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, where she will meet aeronauts, battle bears, a controlling ruling organization, and a variety of friends and foes. Helping her along the way is an elethiometer (aka the golden compass), a device that can show the truth when the right question is asked. With this device in hand she heads off for adventure, pursued by the evil Magisterium (the ruling organization), and seeking the truth behind missing children.
At least, that is what I gathered the plot was. The Golden Compass is like a movie set on fast forward. It feels as if all of the connective tissue was cut, leaving a lean two hour movie that only serves to reveal plot points rather tell an actual story. To simulate this in a more complete movie, for the sake of comparison let's use Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Put in the DVD and then watch it in fast forward, literally. You will get the main plot stuff, but as scenes skip past and chunks are missing, you'll lose character moments and the reason why you should care about them.
The further into the movie I got, the more I tried to care, and the more I could not. There were no real character moments; the script was preoccupied with propelling the plot at the expense of everthing else. Even then, the plot was not very well developed. There are many threads dropped into the mix, many of which do not ultimately lead anywhere. Presumably the payoff will come over the next two films. Among those threads are the adventures of Lyra's Uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig), the truth behind "dust," the truth about her parents, the future of the ice bear kingdom, and probably a few others that I already forgot.
The main plot thrust is split between Lyra's search for missing children and Marisa Coulter's (Nicole Kidman) desire to get her hands on the compass. It's too bad none of it makes sense and nothing is explained, otherwise this could have been an interesting movie. It was easy enough to follow what was going on, but when it came to the whys, I found my mind wandering.
Whenever I saw angry polar bears all I wanted to do was give them a Coke. Everybody knows that polar bears like Coke, and there is nothing like a soft drink to soothe the savage beast. I wondered when Lyra would do something other than rely on the compass crutch to figure something out. I tried to find the anti-religious sentiment that brought down the ire of the League. Also, just when did witches fly and fight with bows and arrows? Finally, why did the end of the movie give us an outline of what comes in the next book/film?
What can I say? The Golden Compass is a rushed film. It moves forward at warp speed, never slowing to give us any quieter character moments, motivations, or story points. Where did the Gobblers come from? How many kids were missing? Was this some sort of epidemic? We are never told; the facts are just there with no supporting evidence. Overall, the movie is a bit of a slog.
What I liked about the movie can be summed up by saying, "Nicole Kidman and Sam Elliot, and the polar bear fight." If you've seen the movie, you will understand. For those who have yet to see it, allow me to expand.
The performances are more or less decent, with Nicole Kidman and Sam Elliot providing standout work. Nicole Kidman is Marisa Coulter. She holds a high rank in the Magisterium and is intent on obtaining the compass. Kidman brings her best ice queen persona to the role as she struts coldly through every scene she is in. Let me say that she is a vision of beauty, but when it comes to emotion, she is as icy as they come. Watching her work her magic was one of the highlights. At the other end of the spectrum is Sam Elliot as the aeronaut Lee Scoresby. He brings his cowboy warmth and dry humor to the screen in fantastic manner, delivering the most human of all the performances. He brings so much charisma to the screen that he is impossible to ignore.
As for the best moment, that belongs to the bears. There is a bear fight that is glimpsed in the trailers that is easily the best sequence of the entire film. There is more emotional involvement here than there is anywhere in the rest of the movie. A lot of its effectiveness is in no small part due to the voice work of Ian McKellan and Ian McShane. As for the fight itself, while I was not terribly convinced by the effects work, it is a brutal affair that ends in such an unexpected manner that even I uttered "Cool!" under my breath.
That about sums up what I liked about The Golden Compass. Okay, I guess the big fight at the end was kind of fun. Also the daemons were a different concept that was handled well for the big screen; although, even they could have done with a bit more exposition.
Writer/director Chris Weitz fails to deliver anything wonderful or enchanting in this half-baked fantasy. Is the novel better? I can only assume that it is. I had hopes that this could be the next great thing for fantasy; instead it continues the trend of disappointments. I guess if the title doesn't have the words Lord, Rings, Harry, or Potter in it, the product is destined to fail. Although, I do have to say that there was one great fantasy film out earlier this year that was more original, magical, and imaginative than this year's Harry Potter and The Golden Compass combined. That movie is Stardust; see that instead of this.
Bottom line. You'd be better off renting Stardust and drinking a Coke. No, the movie is not without its merits. It is certainly ambitious enough, and there is likely a lot that can be read into what is provided. The problem is that what is provided is not nearly entertaining enough to warrant the effort.