The Golden Compass



This review was written for the theatrical release of "The Golden Compass." 

With the glory of "The Lord of the Rings" cycle now fading, New Line looks to "The Golden Compass," the first of a projected series of films derived from Philip Pullman's widely read trilogy, "His Dark Materials," to get the studio back in the fantasy game.

This film just might do the trick. Because Pullman's emphasis is more on youthful heroes, beguiling magic and fantastical landscapes and less on the wars and machismo of "Rings," "Golden Compass" is a "soft" epic, a film touching on childhood fantasies with sturdy, unwavering characters driven to evil or good. More "Harry Potter," in other words, than "Beowulf."

Boxoffice looks substantial. Adapted and directed by Chris Weitz, "Golden Compass" possesses its own movie wizardry, ranging from terrific stunts and CG critters to otherworldly sets and all sorts of 2-D and 3-D visual effects. It's an imagination overload, yet the film maintains a steady course through the FX mire with a strong story line and viable characters at every turn.

"Golden Compass" takes place in an alternate reality Britain and Europe, where the time period appears to be late Charles Dickens and early Jules Verne. In a 19th century that features dirigibles, other exotic means of transport and mystical creatures, everyone is governed by an Orwellian overlord known as the Magisterium. A brave little orphan girl, Lyra (a bit of young acting magic that goes by the charming name of Dakota Blue Richards), grows up in an inexplicably pampered and carefree existence in Oxford.

Everyone in this world is conjoined by an animal spirit, a soul mate or alter ego called a "daemon," that entwines itself into that person's life. This is a major element in the storytelling, yet it makes for a cluttered mise-en-scene and must have been a bitch for the CG artists to produce, as virtually every character in the film is shadowed by a CG critter. (The film has more than 1,100 effects shots.) Lyra's daemon is named Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore). Because Lyra is young, Pan can shape-shift into several animals as befit her unsettled moods.

Mysterious forces hover over this child. In rapid-fire events that can only happen when a movie is based on a detailed novel, her adventurer-scientist uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) turns up and almost immediately vanishes for the Arctic Circle to investigate a mysterious substance known as Dust. Her best chum, Roger (Ben Walker), is snatched away by the kidnapping Gogglers.

A college master unexpectedly presents her the gift of a metaphysical, truth-telling device called a Golden Compass. An ethereal yet possibly malevolent beauty, Mrs. Coulter (an icy Nicole Kidman), visits the college and just like that takes Lyra under her wing. Once Mrs. Coulter proves a distinctly unsuitable guardian, Lyra must escape with her life at stake.

The film is then off to the races as Lyra dashes for the Arctic while forming implausible alliances against the Magisterium with a series of human and nonhuman characters. Here the film's greatest weaknesses surface. Characters pop up as if cued by a railroad timetable. As Gogglers close in on Lyra, abruptly a seafaring clan known as Gyptians comes to her rescue. On the Gyptians' ship, a gorgeous witch, Serafina (Eva Green), materializes out of thin air, offering her help (which will really come in handy in the third act).

The Gyptians dock in the frozen north, and Lyra -- bizarrely unsupervised for someone the entire world is searching for -- immediately makes acquaintance with two more helpmates: a Texas "aeronaut" known as Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and an armored polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen).

Several grand fights, one key revelation, a rescue of Lyra's playmate plus an old-fashioned "To Be Continued" ending make for a rousing finish. Witches sweep out of the night sky, bad guys when shot vanish in balls of flame and the glories of free will get celebrated by championing a child who never does what she is told. What kid won't go for all this?

The blend of live action, CG and visual effects is superb, making what must have been a technological nightmare look easy as pie.

New Line
New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partnerspresents a Scholastic/A Depth of Field production
Screenwriter-director: Chris Weitz
Based on the novel by: Philip Pullman
Producers: Deborah Forte, Bill Carraro
Executive producers: Bob Shaye, Michael Lynne, Toby Emmerich, Mark Ordesky, Ileen Maisel, Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz
Director of photography: Henry Braham
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Senior visual effects supervisor: Michael Fink
Costume designer: Ruth Myers
Editors: Peter Honess, Anne V. Coates, Kevinn Tent
Mrs. Coulter: Nicole Kidman
Lord Asriel: Daniel Craig
Lyra: Dakota Blue Richards
Roger: Ben Walker
Pantalaimon's Voice: Freddie Highmore
Iorek Byrnison's Voice: Ian McKellen
Serafina: Eva Green
John Faa: Jim Carter
Farder Coram: Tom Courtenay
Ragnar Sturlusson's Voice: Ian McShane
Lee Scoresby: Sam Elliott
Magisterial Emissary: Derek Jacobi
Running time -- 114 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13