Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Chris Weitz

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ben Walker, Eva Green, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Sam Elliott, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee, Simon McBurney, Charlie Rowe, Clare Higgins, the voices of Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 12/7/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The first chapter of Philip Pullman's ambitious, mysterious theological fantasy His Dark Materials trilogy comes to the screen in an undemanding, blunt, simplified adaptation. The Golden Compass introduces us to Pullman's multi-dimensional world, where people's souls live outside their bodies in the form of daemons (talking animals), witches fly in the sky along with aeronauts (cowboys in airships), and armored bears roam in the North, but the magic and ambiguity have been lost in translation. There are many fantastic sights to behold in the movie, but they come across shallow.

People familiar with Pullman's books will fill in the blanks (and wonder why there are so many blanks in the first place when so much is spelled out), while those who have yet to encounter his slowly revealing narrative structure will wonder what the point is. I wonder what went wrong. Part of it is a studio that reportedly wanted to take out the religious aspects of the story (Anyone who's read the books will immediately say, "Huh?"), and the other part is writer/director Chris Weitz, who gives us neutered version of a complex story, easily digested by the masses (who will still wonder what the whole thing is about).

The problems start early on as we're told everything we need to know about the world (daemons and witches and what have you), just so there's no reason to flesh it out later on. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives in a world similar but different to ours at the University of Oxford. She's an orphan, who spends her days with her daemon Pantalaimon (voice of Freddie Highmore) playing with local children. One day, she hides out in a wardrobe in the retiring room of Jordan College to overhear her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) talk to representatives of the college and the powerful Magisterium about the mysterious entity known as Dust.

He's discovered that Dust travels from another world, through a person's daemon, and into the person and wants funding for further study. While her uncle's away, Lyra and her friend Roger (Ben Walker) learn about children disappearing, taken away by "Gobblers." Roger and another local boy are kidnapped after the appearance of Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), whose daemon is a golden-haired monkey. Mrs. Coulter has decided to take Lyra with her to the North, but not before she's given an Alethiometer, a device that tells the truth.

There's more to Mrs. Coulter than fancy dresses, furnishings, parties, and company, and soon Lyra finds herself out in the expansive world with the help of the Gyptians, a group of water-traveling gypsies who have lost many children to the Gobblers. Lyra and the Gyptians are headed north, where rumor has told the Gobblers are holding the kidnapped children. Along the way, they ally with aeronaut Lee Scoresby (a perfectly cast Sam Elliott), with his hare daemon Hester (voice of Kathy Bates), witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), and Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen), a former prince of the ice bears now in exile and forced to work for whiskey after the townsfolk tricked him out of his armor.

The particulars of Pullman's world are here, but there's a spark missing. There are some sweeping vistas of the United Kingdom, and the harsh, cold land of Svalbard, where the ice bears reign and the children are held prisoner in a sterile medical facility, look menacing. The special effects work fine, especially the bears and the daemons. The mixture of Victorian era technology with a sort of retro-futuristic design aesthetic is pleasing, but the whole conceptualization of the world feels generic.

The narrative is static as well. Part of that arises from Pullman's book, which serves primarily as an introduction, but it's also Weitz' script, which wants to quickly cut to the chase. The daemons are established immediately in Lyra's world as a person's soul, but they never seem an extension of the individual, undermining the impact of the Gobblers' plans. The evil Magisterium is an anonymous body of English actors, including a criminally underused Derek Jacobi and a typecast Christopher Lee, whose motives are reduced to wanting to control how people think and act.

Since the religious overtones of the story have been eliminated, their reasoning is empty, and indeed, the entire thrust of the story is thereby missing. What we're left with is Lyra's journey, and even her character suffers tremendously from Weitz's attempts to throw in as much spectacle as possible without pausing to wonder what's happening underneath the surface. There are some fine action sequences especially near the end, when we witness a battle between two ice bears (the kicker on that fight is surprisingly gruesome) and a big battle at the doorstep of the Magisterium's medical center, and the visualization of the Alethiometer works quite well.

Then again, visualization is not the problem with the movie. The Golden Compass is simply not a faithful realization of Pullman's book. There are still two more chapters to go, though, but if the first is any indication of the path the future adaptations will take (the anti-climactic ending, which does away with the book's truly rousing one, doesn't elicit any anticipation), it does not bode well.

Copyright 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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