Golden Compass points all over the place

by Glen Baity

If you’re planning on seeing The Golden Compass, it’s safe to assume one of two things: Either you’re a fan of the books and want to see the film out of excitement or compulsion, or you’ve heard about it and are at least intrigued enough to find out what it’s all about.

Either way, you’re bound for disappointment.

The story is complicated, and the film doesn’t do a very good job guiding newcomers through it. The basics involve a series of shadowy kidnappings carried out by an arm of the Magisterium, a religious organization bent on shielding the world’s children from heretical thoughts (violently, if necessary). Young Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, in a promising debut) sets out to save her friend Roger (Ben Walker) from the ranks of the captured, enlisting the help of a warrior polar bear (regally and huskily voiced by Ian McKellen), her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and an army of seafaring nomads, here referred to as Gyptians.

The film takes Lyra, by land, air and sea, from the safe confines of her Oxford boarding school to the darkest reaches of the Arctic. It’s a dizzying journey, and I suspect it’s only because I’m currently reading the His Dark Materials trilogy (of which Compass is the first) that I was able to follow it. Compared to author Phillip Pullman’s measured pacing, the film version of The Golden Compass starts at a sprint and only gains speed.

The story suffers as a result. Most of the characters make the jump from page to screen, but their personalities do not. Gone as well is Pullman’s elegant prose, which nurtures the action through extensive, important exposition. In the film, by contrast, characters too often pop out of nowhere, briefly summing up who they are, why they’re in the scene and what they intend to do.

Most of these characters have less than one dimension, which is borderline painful, given the source material. The principals, most notably Nicole Kidman as the Magisterium’s favorite sadist, lose much of their appeal since writer/director Chris Weitz gives them no time or space to breathe.

The lone exception is Lyra, thanks in no small part to Richards’ charming performance. She’s great as the raggedy tomboy, spitting off the roof and dirtying up her few ladylike outfits. At 13, she shows an impressive range in this film, hinting at great things to come.

Though The Golden Compass, otherwise, is a largely wasted opportunity, there are moments that positively gleam, mostly the action sequences. When two armored polar bears square off for dominance of their tribe, it makes for one of the year’s best spectacles. Likewise, the sweeping aerial shots that accompany the travel sequences are washed in an attractive warm glow, highlighting the fact that The Golden Compass, while mostly a failure, is no doubt the prettiest failure in several years.

The film is marketed as a children’s movie, and there are certainly children in it. But the ideas are very much adult in nature, and on a more practical level, the violence will almost certainly be too much for those just into Narnia age. Polar bears notwithstanding, parents would do well to observe the PG-13 recommendation.

Much has been made of the story’s anti-religious undertones, and for once (unlike, say, the furor over Kevin Smith’s Dogma), the detractors might arguably have some meat to chew on. You’ve probably read that Pullman’s themes have been toned down for the film. Well, yes and no. Like everything else here, what is subtle and well drawn on the page becomes clumsy and awkward on the screen. In the novel, Pullman’s antipathy seems reserved for institutions that strive for little else than control of their followers’ thoughts and actions. That sentiment remains, but it’s a blunt instrument here, wielded poorly.

I will say this, however: The Magisterium is portrayed as a paranoid entity that routinely issues edicts to its subjects on what to think, whom to associate with and how to behave. So incensed were a number of religious groups at this portrayal that they – of course – issued rounds of hotly-worded warnings to their members, urging them to stay far, far away from its lies and deceptions (for the children, of course). Draw your own conclusions.

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