Although “The Golden Compass” has a few big flaws that keep it from being a first-rate fantasy movie in the vein of “The Lord of the Rings,” I think the series can get better and I hope to see the remaining two chapters of Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy one day soon. I’m a bit nervous that this might not happen, since it only grossed about $26 million in its first weekend, which is a bit paltry for a holiday movie with such a huge marketing machine behind it. Last weekend, it was outranked not only by the Will Smith vehicle “I Am Legend,” but also “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” What is going on here?
I still hope that the American public (or at least the overseas audience) will make it a big enough hit that New Line Cinema will decide it would be stupid to let go of all those DVD revenues it could make with the sequels.
“The Golden Compass” introduces us to a world similar to ours in some respects, but vastly different in others. While cities like London retain the same names and much of the same architecture, every person is accompanied from birth by an animal spirit known as a daemon. The movie explains that a daemon is basically a person’s soul on the outside of his or her body. During childhood, a daemon can change shape at will, but it is in fixed form by the time one becomes an adult. When a person talks to his or her daemon, it is basically like when we talk to ourselves, minus the embarrassing moment that arrives when we realize we aren’t alone and have to pretend to be singing. A daemon’s appearance tends to represent something about its human’s personality as well.
The movie’s main character is Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), who lives at Jordon College and is mostly raised by caretakers. Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is an important man who occasionally stops by the college when he isn’t on one of his many journeys. After she witnesses someone poisoning his wine, she manages to warn him in time to save his life. In turns out that the man is a member of the Magisterium, a powerful group that sort of controls things behind the scenes.
Of course, I have to interrupt this synopsis to briefly discuss the proverbial Elephant in the Room. A lot of Christian groups, such as the Catholic League, have called for a boycott of the film on the grounds that the Magisterium represents the church and that movie is supposedly antireligious. While it is true that the word, “magisterium,” is the name of the Roman Catholic teaching authority and Pullman himself is an atheist, the movie does not explicitly condemn religion. There. That’s all I’m going to say about the issue. This is a movie review, after all, not a political or religious analysis.
Anyway, the Magisterium has it out for Asriel because of his theories about parallel universes. Meanwhile, children keep turning up missing in Lyra’s town. Rumors attribute the kidnappings to a mysterious group called the Gobblers. While Asriel is on his travels, a beautiful woman named Mrs. Coulter comes to the college to visit. She wants Lyra to accompany her to London, which Lyra is eager to do. Although she might have some connection to the Gobblers, the Master of Jordon College (Jack Shepherd) allows Lyra to go, presumably because of Mrs. Coulter’s influence among the powerful. Before Lyra leaves, though, the Master gives Lyra an alethiometer, the “golden compass” of the title. After Lyra learns to use to use the rare object, she can use it to learn the truth to any question she asks.
Although the movie has received mixed reviews and has been criticized for feeling rushed, overstuffed with too much plot that is hard to follow and losing the essence of its characters, I think that most of its criticisms have largely unfair. In my view, the movie’s biggest flaw is that there is too much exposition in the dialogue. While there is a great deal of explanation that probably should have been cut, it isn’t badly written, and the movie’s visuals and actors more than make up for it.
Certainly, it’s understandable that families aren’t exactly flocking to the theaters. I didn’t summarize much more than the setup to the plot, and you’re probably confused. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t gotten the audience I think it deserves. It’s rather difficult to explain what it’s about.
Still, Kidman is very good as the evil but always smiling Coulter. Craig, a marvelous actor, unfortunately doesn’t appear much, but I suppose that’s necessary for the first part of the story. Richards is a real find and brings the perfect pluckiness to Lyra, who refuses to let anyone tell her what to do. Later in the movie, she must enlist the services of an armored polar bear named Iorek Byrnison, who is voiced by Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellan. Their relationship is touching and is really the heart of the movie. Sam Elliott, playing the mustachioed Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby is a joy to watch and commands the viewer’s attention in every scene he’s in.
The special effects are also very well done. It must have been a nightmare putting all those daemons in almost every scene, but it’s done in a way that’s pretty convincing and not distracting. The movie’s environments, such as the sea, port towns, the alternative London and especially the far North are beautifully realized. I have to admit, though, that they don’t seem quite as “real” as the environments in “The Lord of the Rings.”
But is that even fair? Maybe we should all stop referring to “Rings” when discussing the fantasy genre. It’s kind of like comparing a pretty good mob movie to “The Godfather.”
“The Golden Compass” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.