Does anyone else feel like we’re being bombarded with the same movie over and over? Since 2001 brought us the lucrative big screen adaptations of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, Hollywood has scrambled to create the next big multi-part fantasy franchise based on a well-established literary property. First it was The Chronicles of Narnia, followed by Eragon, then The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and now The Golden Compass. These movies often have big battle scenes and talking animals and a young hero/heroine who is anointed the “chosen one” to bring down evil. The trend apparently isn’t over: before Compass I saw trailers for the second Narnia installment as well as another book-to-screen fantasy called Inkheart. Both previews had the same kind of dramatic orchestral music and nearly identical gold letting sweeping the titles across the screen. And I haven’t even mentioned the upcoming Spiderwick Chronicles.
Maybe my gripe arises from the fact that none of the movies to follow in the footsteps of Rings or Potter have lived up to that level of quality. The Golden Compass is no different. Sure, it looks expensive, but it’s also one of those movies where you can tell they were more concerned about the look than about telling a good story.
The chosen one this time around is Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a young girl under the care of her professor uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). They live in a land ruled by the Magisterium, a mysterious and powerful organization that commands everyone to follow its rules and judgments without question. However, the Magisterium is also responsible for kidnapping and brainwashing children, in an effort to make sure they don’t question authority. This is achieved by killing the kids’ “daemons,” human souls that have taken animal form and follow them wherever they go.
Lyra is lured away from her uncle by the beautiful and glamorous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). She doesn’t initially realize that her new mentor’s actions are not entirely benevolent. Fortunately, Lyra possesses a golden compass that allows her to see the truth behind the actions of other people. Figuring out that Mrs. Coulter is a big player in the Magisterium’s game, she enlists the help of an armed polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) to help her. Also pitching in are a dirigible-flying cowboy named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) and a witch called Serafina (Eva Green). Together, they plot to bring down the Magisterium and free all the children.
There’s quite a bit more to it than that, but one review can only hold so much information. What’s troubling to me is that The Golden Compass is so overstuffed with characters, species, organizations, and tribes that it constantly has to stop and explain itself. Every few minutes, someone – or something – new enters the picture. The characters then have to halt the action to explain who they are and what their backstory is. This stop-and-start rhythm robs the film of any viewing continuity. There’s never any time to sit back and enjoy things because the story is constantly forcing you to digest new information. You want action, but you get a lot of yapping.
By now, you probably know that The Golden Compass hits theaters amid a lot of controversy. It’s based on a series of books by author Philip Pullman, an avowed atheist who intended the story to be critical of Christianity and the role of the church. His general assertion was that organized religion strips individuals of free thought, and that the Catholic Church in particular insists on an adherence to dogma in order to propagate its own social influence. I think that assessment is a little harsh. Apparently the filmmakers did to, as all direct religious references have been yanked.
While I disagree with Pullman’s thesis, I also feel that the film suffers from having been watered down. The Magisterium – a.k.a. the church – holds no menace because we never understand what they do or why people live in fear of them. There’s nothing here to show where their absolute rule came from. At least when you say “the church,” there are connotations that go along with it. People understand that organized religion imposes rules based on what religious scholars have interpreted from the Bible. Most of us have probably questioned a church teaching at one time or another, and many of us have probably encountered someone who wanted to slam our ideas back in line with the church-sanctioned version. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not eager to see a movie that bashes Christianity; I’m a practicing Christian myself. I just think that The Golden Compass needed a villainous entity that is ballsier and more psychologically loaded than the bland, confusing Magisterium that it has given us.
This adaptation was written and directed by Chris Weitz, whose work I’ve admired in the past. (He directed About a Boy and, with brother Paul, produced American Pie and In Good Company). Clearly, though, this genre is not his forte. The pace is all wrong, and the plot has so much going on at once that it becomes somewhat oppressive. What should be fantastical is ultimately just bland.
The Golden Compass is flawed, but it’s not a complete disaster. The CGI effects look like CGI, but there’s still something cool about armed polar bears fighting with each other. There’s something clever about the way the daemons represent the people they accompany; bad guys tend to have snakes or weasels as daemons, whereas good people have noble animals or cute-and-fluffy ones. I also liked the performance from Nicole Kidman, who’s surprisingly effective as a baddie, although I wish she had more screen time.
A few scattered positives can’t save the picture, though. It keeps you at a distance, never really inviting you in. I heard the dialogue, I saw the images, but I never got into the story. I was always aware that I was sitting in a theater watching a movie. As Pullman wrote several books in this series, the film ends with a clear set-up for the sequels. If most audience members agree with me – and I’m betting they will – those sequels will likely never come to pass.
( out of four)
The Golden Compass is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Golden Compass
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