by Mel Valentin
New Line Cinema, looking for a revenue stream on par with Peter Jackson's award-winning, lucrative adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy turned to the Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy and an adaptation of the first film in the trilogy, "The Golden Compass" (originally released in the UK as "Northern Lights"). As adapted and directed by Chris Weitz ("About a Boy," "American Pie"), "The Golden Compass" is as visually impressive as anything out of the "Harry Potter" or "Narnia" franchises, but like most of the "Harry Potter" films, suffers from compressed, difficult-to-follow storytelling that doesn’t bode well for the second or third adaptations of Pullman’s trilogy.The Golden Compass is set in a parallel universe where the Magisterium (a thinly veiled analog of the Catholic Church) rules over England, stifling scientific inquiry, rational thought, and the usual freedoms of expression and action that accompany an open, progressive society. All of thirteen, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) avoids the worst excesses of the Magisterium’s rule by living under the protection of her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and the scholars who run Jordan College, Lyra and Asriel’s home. Lord Asriel suspects that a passage connecting parallel universe exists, but the Magisterium considers his research heretical. Along with her best friend and kitchen boy, Roger (Ben Walker), make mischief whenever they get an opportunity. Lyra’s shape-shifting daemon (soul, soul mate, and conscience), Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), is always on hand to keep Lyra (relatively) honest.
"Stripped-down, visually impressive adaptation neuters subtext."
The arrival of Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a powerful woman with ties to the Magisterium, at Jordan College, throws Lyra’s small world into turmoil. Coulter decides to take Lyra to live with her, promising a voyage to the far north, the land of armored bears. Before Lyra leaves, however, the Master of Jordan College (Jack Shepherd) gives her an Alethiometer (the Golden Compass of the title), a rare object forbidden by the Magisterium. The Alethiometer gives the owner the ability to discern the truth about any situation. Roger, however, doesn’t appear to send her off. Lyra’s suspicion that the “Gobblers,” mythical creatures who snatch small children, have kidnapped Roger proves to be correct as does Lyra’s suspicion that Coulter hides a dark, twisted agenda.
Lyra’s journey to find Roger and the other missing children takes her, inevitably, North. Along the way, Lyra obtains help from “gyptians,” gypsies who live and travel on water, Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), a self-professed aeronaut and his daemon, Hester (Kathy Bates), Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), the leader of a witch clan, Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen), an exiled ice bear and former heir to the ice bear kingdom who lost his crown to Ragnar Sturlusson (Ian McShane). Meanwhile, Lord Asriel makes his way North, hoping to prove his theories about Dust, a metaphysical substance that apparently connects and binds everything, correct. The Magisterium, of course, sees Asriel’s research as a threat to their authoritarian control over Lyra’s world.
Not surprisingly for the first film in a planned trilogy, The Golden Compass leaves several conflicts or questions unresolved. Lord Asriel is sidelined for most of The Golden Compass’ running time, disappearing altogether during the climax. The Golden Compass’ open ending isn’t exactly satisfying. Weitz’s screenplay also departs from Pullman’s novel, first, by revealing the hidden relationships of two major characters earlier than expected (they happen in the latter novels) and by postponing the downbeat ending found in Pullman’s novel to the hoped-for sequel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just one more example of how Weitz and New Line Cinema tried to play it “safe” with the adaptation, hoping to appeal to family-oriented audiences and end up with a sporadically engrossing, sporadically engaging film.
Given a production budget $150-200 million (not counting P&A), it’s not surprising that Weitz and New Line Cinema pushed The Golden Compass’ anti-clerical, anti-institutional subtext into the background, downplaying Pullman’s parallels between the Magisterium in Lyra’s world and the Catholic Church in ours. Lyra’s world is technologically behind our own due to the Magisterium’s bias against scientific research or inquiry. Pullman posits a world where the Protestant Reformation never occurred, leaving the Catholic Church with temporal as well as spiritual authority. For all that, it’s in Pullman’s sequels to The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass that he takes on not just organized religion but God himself, the Authority. If that doesn’t cause (more) controversy, it’s hard to know what will. What’s equally difficult to figure out is how Weitz and New Line Cinema will handle the depiction of the Authority (if they get that far).That aside, "The Golden Compass" runs into the "Harry Potter" problem: effectively compressing an entire novel’s worth of material into two hours. To Weitz’s credit, "The Golden Compass" clocks in at under two hours, but it feels rushed, as characters and production design work overtime to introduce us to Lyra’s world for more than an hour before Lyra breaks free and begins her journey North to find Roger and Asriel. At least the action picks up in the second half with two visually impressive set pieces. By then, though, moviegoers might not care much what happens to Lyra or the supporting cast of characters. Add, or rather subtract, an inconclusive, unsatisfying ending and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that "The Golden Compass" is two hours of set up with no payoff (because it is).
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16781&reviewer=402
originally posted: 12/06/07 23:54:00