Sometimes, you have have to wait until the fog has cleared before you can assess a film’s merits. THE GOLDEN COMPASS voyaged into theatres late last year with angry detractors on either side trying to sink it like a virtual Scylla and Charybdis: on the one hand, some right-wing religious groups felt offended by the atheistic message of the source novel by Phillip Pullman; on the other hand, the book’s defenders were offended that the film version had muted the message in order to appeal to a wider audience. In trying to navigate a path between these two sea monsters, GOLDEN COMPASS wound up taking a straight and narrow course that was safe but too cautious; by avoiding the angry torrents trying to sink it, the film felt cowardly instead of heroic – a fatal flaw in an epic fantasy about heroism in the face of fantastic obstacles. A more courageous COMPASS would have pointed directly at its foes and counter-attacked, even at the risk of capsizing.
At least, that is the narrative that plays out in your head if you view the film with the controversies in mind. If you simply settle back and enjoy GOLDEN COMPASS on its own terms, you will find an engaging fantasy adventure that, albeit no masterpiece, is hardly the disaster one might have imagined. It lacks the epic scope and richness of the THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, but it avoids the overkill that turned THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING into monotonous battle movies. It is more sophisticated and less childishly inane than THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. And, although it too features a youthful protagonist who is destined for greatness by birthright rather than by any actual accomplishment, it is far less insipid than the HARRY POTTER movies.
Set on a parallel world where humans are accompanied by their souls (called “daemons”) in animal form, the story’s essential battle lines are drawn between the Magisterium, an organization that wants to shut down inquiry and free thinking, and some Oxford professors led by Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who has discovered a mysterious “Dust” that may be the secret to bridging the gap between alternate dimensions. While Asriel heads north to investigate, his orphaned niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is removed from Oxford by Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who not surprisingly turns out to work for the Magisterium. Lyra, we are told, is “special child,” but the only evidence we see is her ability to read the “Golden Compass” of the title, which is actually an “Alethiometer” which “tells the truth” to those who can figure out how to read it. Lyra escapes from Coulter and sets off an an adventure to rescue some kidnapped children, who are part of a Magisterium project to separate them from their souls. Along the way, Lyra is aided and abetted by a witch named Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), an adventurer named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot – perhaps the best thing in the movie), and a talking polar bear voiced by Ian McKellen (perhaps the second best thing in the movie).
The film’s production design has a pleasantly Victorian look – as might have been imagined by Jules Verne; the special effects, including quaint-looking flying machines, should appeal to viewers who enjoy anime fantasy adventures, particularly of the “steam-punk” variety (you will experience a flashback or two to LAPUTA, CASTLE IN THE SKY and/or STEAMBOY). The computer-generated imagery is less cartoony than is often the case; even if it is not perfect, at least in the case of warrior-bear Iorek Bymison, it combines with good writing and McKellen’s strong vocal performance to create a convincing character.
The humans do their best to avoid being upstaged, but they are not always helped by the script, which (after all the build-up) sends Craig’s character packing and barely ever bothers with him again. (After requesting financing for his expedition, his entire equipment seems to consist of a fur coat, so that he can make a journey to the North Pole – on foot!). Kidman is only competent as the evil ice queen; it is the kind of role made to be savored deliciously, and you expect something better from her, but she blows it by trying to go for “shading” that dims rather than illuminates the character.
Richards is sincere as the young heroine, but the role suffers from the script’s insistence that there is something vaguely wonderful about her that we in the audience cannot see, which makes her performance seem somehow diminished compared to the expectations that are raised. Her best moment comes when she cleverly smooth-talks Ragnar Sturlusson (voiced by Ian McShane) into fighting Bymison one-on-one instead of setting his whole army against his lone opponent. (This has to be one of the few times such an obvious plot ploy is pulled off convincingly: not only do you know it has to happen to give Bymison a chance to win; you actually believe that Sturlusson would fall for Lyra’s gambit.)
As a polemic, GOLDEN COMPASS is half-hearted and unconvincing. Pullman’s anti-religious overtones have been toned down in the sense that they are not voiced in the dialogue, but the Magisterium still comes across looking like a religious order – particularly, the Catholic Church. Dialogue references to supporting free inquiry from being shut off by the Magisterium play well in the context of the film, but you have to shake your head and wonder why anyone in the 21st Century would still think the Church worth bashing in this regard. As comedian Bill Mahr pointed out in a recent appearance on The Tonight Show, the Pope is basically a “celebrity…cheerleader” who can advocate positions on certain topics but has not means of enforcing them. The days of the Inquisition are long over, but you would scarecely know it from watching GOLDEN COMPASS. One might be inclined to cut the film some slack for dramatic license, but we live in a parallel world where the greatest threats to progress and free-thinking come not from a heriarchal religious organization but from unorganized religious fanatics and from politicians who cynically appeal to religious voters in order to advance a conservative-cultural-capitalist agenda, which is often at odds with the true tenets of religion. (To cite one example, there was a conservative political movement in California last year to criminalize people who aided illegal aliens. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney encouraged his parishioners to disobey the proposed law if it passed. Although Mahoney’s role in covering up the Catholic child-abuse scandal remains reprehensible, his action on the illegal aliens issue shows that the Church will take liberal positions, even encouraging civil disobediance in the face of an unjust law – something that THE GOLDEN COMPASS would never admit.) And what, one wonders, is the point of calling souls “daemons”? Is it anything more than tweaking the nose of the opposition - being deliberately provocative rather than intellectually engaging?
The biggest problem with GOLDEN COMPASS, strictly as an entertainment, is that it was designed to act as a prologue for a film franchise. Numerous plot elements are introduced that lay a foundation for an epic adventure (magic dust, parallel universes, the Magisterium), but when all is said and done, the actual plot is a rather simple caper about breaking some kids out of an isolated prison. This is done with a reasonable level of excitement, but it is leaves the most interesting ideas unexplored, and the major dramatic conflict has scarcely been engaged, let alone resolved. Viewers quite reasonably wonder, “Is that all?”
The answer, of course. was meant to be “No, that is not all; there is more to come.” The film’s final moments are almost embarassing in the way they promise future adventures; however, after the relatively disappointing box office response, it seems doubtful that there will be sequels. (The best part of the ending may be the closing credits, thanks to a moody theme song “Lyra” by Kate Bush; it may not be the British singer-songwriter’s best work, but it suits the film perfectly and provides a sort of emotional satisfaction that that the film’s open ending lacks.) Too bad writer-director Chris Weitz did not work harder to create a film that would stand on its own and satisfy an audience in a way that would make them want to see more.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS (12/2007, New Line Cinema). Written and directed by Christ Weitz, based on the novel Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota BLue Richards, Freddie Highmore (voice), Ian McKellen (voice), Eva Green, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Ian McShane (voice), Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas (voice), Edward de Souza, Kathy Bates (voice), Simon McBurney, Jack Shepherd, Magda Szubanski, Derek Jacobi.
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