Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence.
Parental Notes: The violence is, with one exception, fairly standard fantasy fare — there are battles with little blood. The exception is a battle between two armored polar bears which ends with one killing the other with a move the observant may find shocking but the unobservant will probably not notice as particularly violent. There is very little blood, however.
Adapting a book into film is a dangerous business, but Hollywood keeps trying. “The Golden Compass” is a slightly-watered-down version of the first book in Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, a text on religious philosophy written as a beautiful fantasy story. The books work very well on both levels, but so much of Pullman’s nuance has been left out in the page-to-screen transition that the film comes across as a somewhat rushed, rather shallow fantasy tale with hints of philosophy in it.
The story follows our heroine, Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), an intractable orphan being raised in a paralell universe to ours, in a college much like Oxford. Children are disappearing from the streets, and when one of her friends goes missing, Lyra is determined to find him. The alluring Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, “Margot at the Wedding”) invites Lyra to join her on an expedition to the frozen North, but Lyra soon discovers that Mrs. Coulter is connected to the missing children, and sets off with a small company of Gyptians, a sort of cross between pirates and gypsies, to see about rescuing her friend. Along the way she meets Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan, “Stardust”), an armored polar bear, and Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott, “Ghost Rider), the pilot of a sort of hot air balloon. They join her on her quest as well.
“The Golden Compass” is visually stunning, like any big-studio fantasy film ought to be. The CGI animals look astonishingly real, presumably because they are all CGI rather than an unnerving blend of real and computer-generated. There are a lot of CGI animals because every human character in the film has a daemon, an animal-shaped, talking companion who embodies part of that person’s soul. The daemons of children can shapechange, which leads to some wonderful effects sequences.
The actors hold their own against the special effects — especially young Richards, who is a gem. Her Lyra is an unrepentant liar, faithful til death to her friends but unconcerned with everyone else. Kidman embodies Mrs. Coulter’s frightening mixture of seductive warmth and icy soullessness perfectly, and leads one to hope that the other books will be made if only so that we can see the depths of depravity and tenderness of which the woman is capable. A wide collection of character actors make appearances and lend a wonderful air to the film.
There are, of course, plenty of issues with “The Golden Compass,” as there are in any adaptation of a complex book. Some details have been changed, such as who exactly tries to poison Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, “The Invasion”); other details have been left out entirely, such as the cloud pine branches the witches use to fly. The villainous Magisterium, which in the book is unquestionably a mirror of our world’s Catholic Church, has been somewhat watered down so that it resembles a faintly religious-toned Big Brother. And nearly all the philosophical discussion about free will and the nature of the human spirit is gone. Fans of the book will likely be disappointed by the omissions, and those folks the changes are intended to appease are no less upset about the film. One can’t help but wonder how the philosophy- and theology-heavy second and third books can be adapted to follow this film.
Ultimately, “The Golden Compass” is a shallow retelling of a complex book. It is a good adventure story, but the stripping down of the complex plot leaves holes and strange hints behind. Newcomers to the trilogy who long for more should check out the books. Fans of the books, on the other hand, are well advised to chant a little mantra before watching the movie: “there is no book, there is no book, there is no book…” That more or less worked for me.