It’s a terrible feeling as a viewer when you can see the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making a movie – and the end result is indifference and disappointment. Such is the case with The Golden Compass, an adaptation of the first entry of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. All $150 million of the budget leaps off the screen, but the storytelling and pacing leaves much to be desired and ultimately renders the film as “just another entry” into the already-overloaded canon of fantasy films.
We meet young Lyra Belacqua (Blue Richards) as the film opens. A young girl amongst a host of scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College, Lyra lives in the kind of world where souls take on the form of physical specimens and there are multiple known universes. One day she overhears a conversation pertaining to a mythical particle: Dust. A pest to most of us around the house, this Dust has the power to unite worlds. Certain forces that be, however, have no interest in such a notion. Lyra and her friends begin the conquest to the great North in search of the Dust, all the while being chased by villains of all kinds – and worlds.
For a film that’s being marketed to children it sure has a lot of pitch black themes, intertwining story lines, and a fair amount of violence (albeit bloodless). The central problem here is that there is hardly any coherence to the plot and absolutely no pacing is established by director Chris Weitz. One can’t help but feel like this project was pushed to meet the holiday demand for a new fantasy franchise and, judging by its conclusion; this has big plans to be a franchise.
It’s really a shame, because the special effects are nothing short of astonishing. The central showcase, a battle between two armored polar bears, is an absolute feast for those in search of envelope-pushing CGI. There is a certain video game quality to the whole thing that pulled me out of several sequences, but this is as good of CGI as we’ve seen all year.
The performances are solid, for the most part. Dakota Blue Richards, making her acting debut, literally carries the film herself as Lyra. She has a wonderful delivery and often strikes the sense of wonder that any of us would if we were talking to a battle-ready polar bear. Nicole Kidman is in full-on Cruella De Vil-mode and is, surprisingly, not given a whole lot to do. Weitz’s screenplay never really lets her be truly mean, but rather a perfectly-groomed snob. Daniel Craig gets limited screen time, but I have a feeling he’ll be playing a larger part in later films. Sam Elliott also pops up as the film’s comic relief playing, well, Sam Elliott.
For as much as it has going for it, The Golden Compass is a largely uneven experience that could have benefited greatly from a few more edits and more effective consolidation of the storyline. The film certainly has themes that will fly right over kids’ heads, but they will dig the eye candy. There’s no doubt that the second entry of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, is in the works, but let’s hope the filmmakers are given time to settle down and flesh out the storyline accordingly. This series has promise, but The Golden Compass is a letdown.
Studio: New Line Cinema
Length: 113 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence.
Theatrical Release: December 7, 2007
Directed by: Chris Weitz
Written by: Chris Weitz. Based upon the novel by Philip Pullman.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore (voice), Ian McKellen (voice)