- Rated PG-13
- Buy the DVD
All photos © New Line Cinema
Reviewed by David Medsker
et’s get the talk of the controversy out of the way, shall we? Catholic groups have been up in arms about New Line’s decision to adapt “The Golden Compass,” the first of atheist author Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, decrying the books as anti-Christian. As a Christian, I personally take no issue with his message, but am appalled by the leaden delivery of said message, as it made for some tedious viewing. It certainly has an anti-establishment tone to it, but what’s wrong with that? If there is anything to fear about this movie, it’s the notion of being talked to death. And just when you think they’re finished talking, they talk some more.
The movie, which takes place in a world parallel to ours, stars Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belacqua, an orphan girl who resides at Jordan College under the care of her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Lyra overhears a plot to kill Lord Asriel, and in the process stumbles upon a grand conspiracy involving kidnapped children, witches, a nomadic group called the gyptians, an unspeakable substance called Dust, ice bears, and the devious Ms. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who befriends Lyra by taking her away from Jordan College to be her apprentice but may not have Lyra’s best interests at heart.
We haven’t even gotten to the movie’s namesake, also called an alethiometer. It will answer any question posed by someone who knows how to use it, and it is the last of its kind, and thus a dangerous weapon were it to fall in the wrong hands. Lyra has it, Ms. Coulter wants it. Also, everyone’s soul in this universe is physically manifested by a daemon, an animal that walks with them. Lyra’s daemon is Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), who changes shape from bird to ferret to minx. Hurt the daemon, and you hurt the human, and vice versa. It is the combination of all these things, from daemons to ice bears to Dust to witches – not to mention Sam Elliott’s space cowboy – that leads to all the talking. Exposition does not come naturally to stories like this, so the filmmakers used nearly every second of the movie’s running time to insert as much exposition as possible. They overdid it. Lyra and Pan express every single emotion to each other that they’re feeling at any given moment. Is that because they weren’t sure if we knew how they felt (we did, thank you), or because they felt compelled to use as much of Highmore’s voice as possible?
The movie actually looks spectacular. The set pieces are a unique blend of past, present and future, and the special effects, save for a couple glaring oversights (why can’t we see anyone’s breath in the freezing cold?), are quite good, given the number of talking animals that they had to animate. The movie’s third act is quite entertaining as well, filled with nonstop action and one ‘holy shit, that did not just happen’ moment that will not be spoiled here; the problem is that I tuned out around the 30-minute mark as a result of the endless chatter, so the slam-bang finale was too little, too late. It is not until Elliott’s space cowboy Lee Scoresby appears that the movie gets truly interesting, and while he is unable to save the movie, he does manage to successfully steal it. Craig, on the other hand, is onscreen for about a minute and change. Newcomer Richards is quite the find; she has tremendous presence, which is a must when you’re sharing the screen with a drunk polar bear voiced by Ian McKellen. Had she come of age sooner, she would probably be Hermione Granger.
Movies have been sporting shorter running times of late – hooray for small miracles – but “The Golden Compass” would have greatly benefited from a longer running time. Had they given the material the chance to breathe, instead of rushing to explain everything and rushing from Point A to Point B, we might be talking about an heir to Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies. Instead, we have a movie that pushes a lot of the same buttons, but doesn’t seem to understand what any of it means.
Two-Disc Platinum Series DVD Review:
Say what you will about the film itself – the two-disc release of “The Golden Compass” is one of the best DVDs of the year. True, all of the bonus content was probably recorded prior to the film’s unexpected failure at the domestic box office (and hence why everyone involved seem so confident), but that doesn’t affect its quality in the slightest bit. The audio commentary by writer/director Chris Weitz is both informative and enjoyable, but it’s the additional 160 minutes of special features – which have been split up into three sections (Origins, Behind-the-Scenes, and Lyra’s World) – that ultimately make the two-disc set such a success. The best of the bunch include featurettes on costume design, prop construction (including the titular Golden Compass), and SFX, but interviews with author Philip Pullman also help to shed a little light on the translation from book to screen.