The Golden Compass **1/2
Directed by Chris Weitz
Written by Chris Weitz, based on the book by Philip Pullman
Nicole Kidman as Marisa Coulter
Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel
Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belacqua
Freddie Highmore as Pantalaimon (voice)
Ian McKellen as Iorek Byrnison (voice)
Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala
Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby
Kristin Scott Thomas as Stelmaria (voice)
Kathy Bates as Hester (voice)
113 Minutes(Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence. )
Despite having giant talking polar bears, animals that represent human souls, and flying witches, there was so many moments in "The Golden Compass" that could have been much more magical than they were. Perhaps something was lost in translation from the original novels-the "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman, popular novels in Britain. I never even heard of them. Perhaps its the overblown fantasy genre, which is getting into more and more obscure fantasy novels-there was a film a few months ago called "The Seeker," which I did not see, but came into theatres for an extremely short amount of time. Or perhaps its the fault of our director/writer, who I do not think was very apt for this type of material. Chris Weitz, who I adore for making the wonderful film "About a Boy," the quite good movie "In Good Company," and the rather funny "American Dreamz," does not really seem like the right choice for an epic big budget fantasy adventure story. And yet even though I found it hard to get into it, there were still moments of very good action, and those rare moments where I was even sucked into this fantasy world-just not enough to really recommend.
The original novels by Pullman involve a rather anti-religious commentary, with his evil giant force known as the Magisterium being a comparison to organized religion. I also think they were some kind of response to C.S. Lewis' extreme pro-religious commentary in "The Chronicles of Narnia." The film follows Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan who attends a school under the wishes of her Uncle Asriel. Asriel is planning a trip to the north to study odd patterns of dust in the air. They live in an alternate fantasy world from us, where humans are followed by animal companions named daemons-the catch is that if something happens to one it happens to the other. Lyra is given the chance to go to the north with the seductive Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman, not having a very good year), and before she leaves she is given a golden compass, which has the power to show the truth as it is. There are also a group out there known as the Gobblers, who abduct children and remove their free will, separating them from their daemons forever. When Lyra finds out that Coulter may be the leader of the Gobblers , she escapes and sets out to save the captured kids, with the help of a witch, an aviation expert, and a giant iron clad polar bear.
"The Golden Compass" is the classic first part of any fantasy story, complete with lots of explanations and introductions. Maybe thats why there was something about it I couldn't place my finger on-a problem that I also had with the first "Lord of the Rings" film, but less with "Chronicles of Narnia," mainly because that film and original novel are stories unto their own. I also really enjoyed the performance by found child actress Dakota Blue Richards, who has the mixture of wit, spunk, and likability that calls for success in the future. (speaking of so called success, whatever happened to Dakota Fanning? Do you know? I sure don't.) There are a few good special effect set pieces-the polar bear fight, the final battle scene-but on the whole some of it just isn't very easy on the eye. There was just so little magic here despite all the massive hype, and the big budget that went into it. The cast is a nice mixture, but Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, Sam Elliot, and even a brief appearance by Christopher Lee doesn't seem to propel any real great acting moments. And the original anti-religious undertones seem to be a little lost in translation, as if I didn't know the background before seeing the film I never would have guessed that Pullman was against God and more interested in independent will.
Two things I did like, special effects thrown out. The first is the music, which is a classic blend of action and adventure. And the ending, which promises a sequel even though the box office intake does not. Sadly, just when you are finally getting into the adventure, the screen fades to black and the credits begin to role. I wouldn't mind a sequel just to give it another shot-this isn't a bad film, just not a fantasy world that I found quite memorable. I would like to read the novels, though-that's on my to-do list.