I first picked up Philip Pullman’s novel, The Golden Compass, for the typical reason: I was looking for something to fill the void between Harry Potter books. This movie adaptation was likely made with similar motives, but I think viewers expecting a Potter-esque fun-ride might be a bit disappointed or confused by Compass’s extra complexity. The story is as much about our heroine Lyra Belacqua (played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards — isn’t that the coolest name?) as it is about this alternate world and its complicated metaphysics. Lyra lives at a university with her scholar uncle, Lord Asriel (played by blond-Bond, Daniel Craig) in an alternate, turn-of-the-century England. In this universe, human souls are embodied by animal companions and there is a blend of magic with science. After Asriel embarks on an expedition to the North, Lyra is put in the care of the enigmatic Mrs. Coulter (played with icy elegance by Nicole Kidman). Bad things are happening to young children and when Lyra’s friend Roger goes missing, she embarks on a quest to rescue him. Along the way, she not only runs afoul of Mrs. Coulter, but also encounters flying witches, sea-faring gypsies (here called “Gyptians”), warrior polar-bears, and an airship-flying cowboy buccaneer.
The visuals are pretty amazing. All the animal companions (called “daemons”) are well-animated and life-like, with the possible exception of Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey (but it’s hard to animate monkeys ‘coz they’re so human-like, eh?). Another amazing feat of CGI are the polar bears in the movie (they’re actually an intelligent race called “ice bears”). The main bear character (Iorek Byrnison, voiced by genre film master Ian McKellen) not only looks good and interacts with Lyra a lot, he also fights brutal single combat with another bear– it all looks realistic and awesome. Besides the artificial, there are also some impressive buildings at the college and in the cities. But as Eragon proved recently, visuals alone do not a good fantasy movie make, so what else does this film have to offer?
The cast is pretty great. Kidman and Craig reliably good (though Craig has so little screen time that he didn’t even get the chance to reunite with Bond-girl Eva Green who played witch leader Serafina Pekkala). Dakota Blue Richards starts off a bit stiff, but by the time she’s playing a ruse on the king of the ice bears, her character displays a skill at manipulation beyond her girlish years. There were many excellent voices as well, including McKellan as the mighty Iorek, Freddie Highmore as Lyra’s shape-shifting daemon Pan, and (a barely noticed) Kristin Scott Thomas as Asrial’s snow-leopard daemon Stelmaria.
The world created here is complex, not only with its daemons, but there is a lot of political machination going on (there’s a sinister cabal known as the Magisterium who want total dominance at all cost) alongside some metaphysical science (Asriel is investigating the magical particles called “dust” which could give access to another universe). Also, each of the other races: witches, bears, Gyptians have their own issues and politics. This only scratches the surface of what is going on in this movie apart from Lyra’s quest. While I am happy for a more intricately thought-out world behind the fantasy, a lot of the details become meaningless when the connections that the book drew are not very clear in the film. For example, in the movie it’s unclear what “dust” has to do with the kidnapped children or Mrs. Coulter’s experiments. To enjoy the movie you not only need to suspend disbelief for all the magical aspects, but also put aside the need for motives to be explained and all the dots to be connected. If you’re prepared that there’s some missing back-story needed to fully understand, but not needed just to enjoy, then you will be able to do the latter no sweat. Oh, and for those of you stymied by the lack of closure at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, I’m warning you now, The Golden Compass is the first of three installments, so be prepared for the fade to black.
In our world, there have been some loud rumblings from the Christian community about the anti-religious aspects of this novel series. I didn’t read the second or third book yet, but I didn’t remember noticing that aspect much in the first, and it really doesn’t play much of a role (if any) in this movie. I’m a Christian myself, and I enjoyed this film, but it definitely doesn’t leave me quite as moved or engaged as I was with the Harry Potter movies or the Rings trilogy. Some of that has to do with Pullman’s world, and some of that has to do with weaknesses in this adaptation. However, as far as epic fantasy adaptations go, this is still pretty top-notch. I’m looking forward to The Subtle Knife (book II) whenever that arrives on screen (which I hope will even be on IMAX). (4.5 out of 5)
What if I made The Golden Compass?
There’s very little I would change to the visuals. They were everything I imagined and more. My main thing to work on would be the script. I think there needed to be a few more cinematic character scenes to make the viewer really feel for Lyra or Iorek or any of the major characters. Everything just moved at such a quick pace, and trying to unravel the complexity in the story, there wasn’t enough time to humanize the characters or get into their feelings and personalities. I would not have been afraid of taking the Harry Potter route to make the movie extra-long in order to allow for time to decompress both the story and the characterizations. I just think there’s so much there that skimming too quickly can do it an injustice.