The Neverending Backstory
First installment in putative fantasy series takes forever to go nowhere
Over the past few years, Hollywood has taken plenty of stabs at recreating the commercial success of the The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fantasy-novel adaptations, sometimes with similar success (The Chronicles of Narnia) and sometimes without any at all-such as Eragon and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, both abysmal starts to series that may likely never be. The latest attempt to woo kids to theaters and toy sections is The Golden Compass, an adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman's award-winning His Dark Materials trilogy. While the movie succeeds in delivering thrills proportionate to its exorbitant $200 million (or so) budget, it ultimately suffers from a desperate need to set up far too much in 113 minutes. In fact, it could have been called The Golden Exposition.
For example, in the parallel universe Pullman's story takes place in, souls do not reside within human beings, but walk alongside them as animal demons (called daemons) and, in the movie, voiced by actors Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Freddie Highmore, and Kathy Bates. Then there's Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a student at Jordan College as well as the orphan niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), a world-famous explorer and scientist who is determined to prove that "dust," a mythical sub-atomic particle, can be used to bridge dimensions. When Asriel heads to the arctic north to do just that, the mysterious Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) arrives and whisks Lyra away-but not before a professor gives to her an alethiometer, the last golden compass of its kind and a sort of magical truth tool fueled, we guess, by dust. Coulter wants this device, which drives Lyra and her daemon to escape with a band of Gyptians (gypsies), who lead her to the north where, in another storyline, kidnapped children, including Lyra's friends, are being kept for scientific experimentation. It seems the Magesterium, to which Coulter belongs, wants to remove daemons permanently from commoners so as to better control them. There are many allusions to the danger of theocracies that seek to sacrifice free will in favor of adherence to their beliefs-allusions many religious groups have called anti-Catholic or even anti-god. The truth is that the theme has been so watered down here that there's not much for anybody to fear-except maybe the violence, considering this is a PG-13 movie.
There are more guns in The Golden Compass than you'll find in most movies this year, though you never see the gory damage their bullets inflict since, when heroes or villains are killed, their bodies just fall over while their daemons explode like a fancy firework. It's like a real world magician's use of distraction: Ooh, pretty lights, nothing violent happened. The guns, however, have nothing on Iorek (voiced by McKellen), an ice bear (read, polar bear) who, after Lyra earns an oath of aid from him by helping him regain his armor, proceeds to maul, stomp, and dismember enemies with his feral bloodlust. For all the movie's fantastic production design, it never achieves a sense of wonder, a sense of magic until Iorek, a banished prince of his race, is introduced. While adults, and probably children, too, will think his rampaging-especially a partial ice bear decapitation-a reason to cheer, it really tests the term "fantasy violence" used by the MPAA when assigning ratings to a children's movie.
By the way, it's too bad that Iorek himself is not the protagonist of this movie. While Richards is certainly a fine actress for her age, her character is never as likeable as her band of allies that, aside from Iorek and the Gyptians, also includes an ethereal witch, Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), and a wily old gunslinger/aeronaut called Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot). In fact, every one of them deserves a movie more than Lyra. The odds are this will be rectified in the sequels, but here The Golden Compass just feels like a rushed set-up for all those stories and character growth to come. Had director Chris Weitz given himself another 10 minutes to tell the story, without the need for so much inert exposition, it might have in turned out something truly great. Instead, The Golden Compass offers nothing but a hint of what might have been and what might eventually be when the hopefully better-scripted sequels come out.