The Golden Compass (2007)
The Golden Compass (2007)

Genre: Fantasy Running Time: 1 hr. 53 min.

Release Date: December 7th, 2007 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Chris Weitz Actors: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Eva Green, Tom Courtenay, Ian McShane, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates

 


 

F

or all of its bells and whistles, of which it has many, “The Golden Compass” is still unable to surpass the status of a mere replication of one of the countless family-friendly fantasy films already out there. Even with the astute devising of daemons and massive armored bears, it is essentially another version of “The Chronicles of Narnia” or “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s solid entertainment, but of the repetitious kind – as if it was the sequel to something else, even though it is obviously the first of a potential series.

Young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives in an alternate world to earth – many of the locations and lands are similar to our planet, but it’s certainly not to be mistaken for the same. The most noticeable difference, aside from the sci-fi/fantasy blend of technology, is that the souls of humans appear outside of their bodies, in the form of animals called Daemons, which faithfully accompany them everywhere. Lyra’s ever-changing Daemon is known as Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore).

After Lyra hears about a forbidden, magical particle called “dust,” the beguiling scientist Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) curiously appears to ask the girl to join her on a journey to the north as an assistant. Lyra is eager for a chance to escape her schoolwork and follow after her uncle, Lord Asrial (Daniel Craig), who is also journeying to the Arctic Circle to investigate a sighting of large quantities of dust. Shortly after her departure, Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is working for the Magisterium, the strict government that rules over the land. Linking Coulter to the recent disappearance of her best friend, Lyra sets out to locate a villainous facility where kidnapped children are used for cruel experimentation. During her travels, she is aided by a band of Gyptians, a Texas airship pilot (Sam Elliott), the mysterious witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), and a giant, armored ice bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) to carve out a path of freedom for the captured children. Along the way, she also obtains an Alethiometer – a strange golden compass that tells the truth to those who know how to read (and sure enough she knows how to read it).

There are quite a few innovative ideas at work in “The Golden Compass,” an adaptation of the first of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Daemons, an amusing enough concept from which to build an entire fantasy environment, are unique and well-developed, allowing for much of the photorealistic computer graphics to impress. The fact that they speak and serve as a physical manifestation of the ego is even more fascinating. But another aspect, which is certainly not as unique, is the Magisterium – the totalitarian government that controls the alternate world. They keep people in line by telling them what to do – something rebellious little Lyra has great difficulty accepting.

The Catholic Church has been in an uproar ever since this project was announced, going so far as to ban its viewing by its members. While this is ostensibly due to subtle anti-religious notions or a feeling of distaste for Christianity (something the author readily admits), it looks more like a fear of comparisons to the Magisterium’s loose resemblance to the Church’s hierarchy. But the Magisterium is simply an Orwellian dictatorship, as witnessed in countless other futuristic films. In the movie, they are clearly villains; could it be that the Church views itself as something of a despotic antagonist?

The armored bear is perhaps the finest accomplishment in the film (exhibiting a distinct parallel to Narnia’s famous lion), though at times he wanders dangerously close to appearing unrealistic. But considering that a talking polar bear is already unbelievable, “The Golden Compass” does a fine job of bringing him to life with nearly flawless movement and extraordinary muscle and fur interaction. Several of the other daemons are less impressive, including Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey, which at times barely resembles an animal.

Films like “The Golden Compass” typically have a difficult time with their introduction, due to the problematic nature of quickly defining an entire, foreign universe. They must provide enough information to make audiences believe in the fantasy, without overloading them with complex jargon. Here, despite the ridiculous names that are impossible to keep track of, “The Golden Compass” introduces its wonders swiftly and relatively clearly, ensuring that questions won’t arise right away. Considering the usual Hollywood plan for sequels, it’s acceptable – although annoying – to keep a few secrets. It would, however, be nice to know where the ice bear stores his armor.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10