Golden Compass, The

There are so many original ideas and intriguing characters in “Golden Compass,” the film version of Philip Pullman's first book of acclaimed trilogy “His Dark Materials,” that one is willing to disregard the movie's major flaws: Chris Weitz's uninspired direction and uneven technical execution that ultimately doesn't reflect the state-of-the-art of fantasy films.

Overall, “Golden Compass” is a likable, moderately engaging, and well-acted children's fable, but it lacks the magic and unified style visionary directors such as Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Peter Jackson would have given to such rich literary source material.

The above names are relevant for each one of these directors has made a similar film: Del Toro with his dazzling “Pan's Labyrinth,” which also centers on the self-discovery journey of a young precocious girl, Cuaron, who directed the best “Harry Potter” film to date in the ongoing franchise, and Jackson, the auteur of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Thematically, “Golden Compass” is closer to the “Harry Potter” series and “The Chronicles of Narnia” than to “Lord of the Rings,” New Line's Oscar-winning mega-hit triptych. Whether the studio would make all three segments of Pullman's highly praised trilogy would depend on the commercial reception to the first chapter, which opens stateside December 7, and a few days earlier in the UK and France.

In terms of scale, it's hard to think of another director who has gone from making rather small, intimate relationship movies (the best of which is “About a Boy,” co-helmed with brother Paul Weitz) to large-budget, effects-driven tent pole movies. When critics claim that Hollywood doesn't offer opportunity for directors to stretch and develop, Chris Weitz should be used as a test case: “Golden Compass” follows up narrowly focused comedies Chris Weitz co-made with his brother Paul Weitz, from the light and good (“American Pie”) to the bad and more serious (“American Dreamz”).

The books were previously done as stage play at the National Theater. I have not seen the theatrical productions, but I have read the books and they are fantastical in both senses of the term fantasy. Admittedly, in his screen adaptation, Weitz was challenged with an enormous task, tackling a richly dense epic that's populated by numerous human characters and creatures and is multi-layered with various subplots and locations. Thus, it's daunting task that even more skillful and experienced filmmakers than Weitz would have been intimidated by.

“Golden Compass” has already stirred some controversy among religious groups (which, of course, have not seen it), due to the anti-institutional religious bent of the book, but the irony is that purists of Pullman's books might complain that the movie went too far in the other direction in defusing the overtly Catholic contents, turning the saga into one that's more about spirituality and free will than about religion per se.

We have seen fables about witches that rule the skies, and ice bears that are brave warriors, but arguably the most brilliant idea in the book, which is well-executed in the film due to the casting of the voices and acting of the humans, is the notion of attaching to every human cahracter an animal spirit that's as close to them as their own heart. This ploy not only enriches the narrative, but also enables the characters to communicate with their inner-souls (so to speak), and share their fears and hopes.

Like all morality tales, “Golden Compass” is about the battle between good and evil. In this saga, the villain is the creepy Magisterium, which seeks to control all of humanity, and is threatened by the last remaining Golden Compass and the one child who's destined to possess it: the wonderful 12-year-old protagonist Lyra Belacqua, played with confidence by the talented Dakota Blue Richards, who doesn't look or act like a child actress. (It's her first film).

When the story begins, Lyra lives as a ward of the distinguished Jordan College in Oxford. She spends her free time wandering through the streets on quests for adventures with her loyal friend Roger (Ben Walker), a kitchen boy. Wherever she goes, Lyra is accompanied by her daemon, Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore of “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” fame), an ever-changing animal that serves as a voice of reason.
In short order, we are introduced to Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, formally dressed up, in his first post-Bond assignment), who's about to embark on a trip to the Arctic Circle to investigate a mysterious element called Dust, despite the fact that the Magisterium would do anything–including shutting down Jordan College–to abort his mission.

Meanwhile, an ominous mood begins to prevail due to rumors of some children mysteriously disappearing and being taken up north. Rumors become a terrifying reality for Lyra, when her best friend Roger goes missing. The ever-willful and determined Lyra vows to rescue Roger at all costs, which she does.

After meeting Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a beguiling scientist and world traveler who appears in the college, Lyra realizes she has been drawn into a trap designed to take away from her the Golden Compass. Given to her as a gift by the Master of Jordan College (Jack Shepherd), it's a mystical, powerful device that can tell the truth, and has the power to reveal what others wish to hide and even change the course of the future.

Embarking on a journey to rescue Roger and stop the Magisterium, Lyra meets a tribe of seafaring Gyptians, headed by Lord Faa (Jim Carter), Ma Costa (Clare Higgins) and Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay), who promise to protect her. A new, bigger alliance is formed, when the Gyptians, a mysterious witch named Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), and Texas airman Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), all join forces.

From that point on, Lyra is flung into an adventure that takes her over sky and ocean to the wilds of the icy north. Arguably, the tale's most engaging chapters involve Lyra and her new, powerful ally, a bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen in a grand, theatrical performance), who pledges to be at her service until she succeeds.

In the background, a big ominous war threatens not only Lyras world but all the parallel worlds beyond the northern lights. With her band of friends and allies, and the Golden Compass' power, the ever-resourceful Lyra utilizes her skills and summons all her courage to stop it.
Like all fairy tales, the tale is about the process and road rather than the outcome. To that extent, the filmmakers have tempered with the book's chronology and have imposed a more upbeat (and abrupt) ending to the movie than the one that existed in the book.

Best asset of the film is its heroine and the actress who plays her. “Golden Compass” is ultimately the story of a young girls journey to self-awareness and the power of her free will, set against an extraordinary world. Still forming, Lyra is wild, willful and precocious, yet the beauty of Pullman's narrative is that though the heroine is a child, there is nothing childish or even child-like about her story.

Lyra's curiosity and willful nature open the door to all kinds of mysteries. Initially, Lyra is raised among the paternal company of the Master, going through life with no knowledge that her decisions might affect others in this world, or any of the parallel worlds that exist. The notion of parallel universe may sound confusing but is explained in the film for those who have not read the books. Clearly, though its a well-conceived parallel world, it speaks truthfully about our own world and our own lives as children, parents and citizens of society.

But Weitz's conception and pedestrian execution are problematic. The gulf between the cosmic aspects and the personal stories, which is crucial in Pullman's book, is not well served by Weitz the scripter or helmer. The vast production of “Golden Compass” calls for striking vistas, myriad creatures, and visual effects that are simply beyond Weitz's abilities; there's nothing in his resume that indicates he can handle such task. Realizing his limitations, Weitz emphasizes the magical aspects in the various relationships rather than in the saga's potential as a dazzling spectacle. The uniformly high-level of acting manages to camouflage the film's technical shortcomings.

The distinguished cast includes Tom Courtenay, Derek Jacobi, Jack Shepherd, Ben Walker, Simon McBurney, Jim Carter, Clare Higgins, Magda Szubanski, and legendary actor Christopher Lee, whose iconic presence provides a nice punctuation, just as it did in “Lord of the Rings.” The film's voices belong to actors who are just as distinguished as the humans, including Ian McKellen, Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Freddie Highmore, and Ian McShane. It's therefore too bad that most of them have such limited opportunity; Scott Thomas and Bates have two or three lines of dialogue.

One get the impression from the brevity of their roles, as well as that of Daniel Craig, which feels truncated, is a function of heavy editing by various people with different philosophies and tastes. Though she gets credit, vet editor Anne V. Coates was removed from the project, when two other editors, Peter Honess (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and Kevin Tent were assigned to finish post-production. End result is a bumpy road, with many emotional highs but also quite a few lows, and a saga that despite good ingredients lacks narrative smoothness or fluidity, reaffirming that Weitz is not the right director for the job.

It's too bad, for while Weitz succeeds in conveying the thematic elements of a compelling fantasy about the human spirit and free will, loyalty and kindness, his “Golden Compass” lacks a sense of magic and wonder.

End Note

Pullmans celebrated trilogy, “His Dark Materials,” made its debut in 1995 with “The Golden Compass” (“Northern Lights” in the UK), followed by “The Subtle Knife” in 1997 and “The Amber Spyglass” in 2000. These books won the Whitbread Book of the Year for The Amber Spyglass, the first time the award has gone to a childrens book. To date the trilogy has sold 14 million copies around the world. He is currently writing a sequel to “His Dark Materials,” entitled “The Book of Dust.”

Cast

Mrs. Coulter – Nicole Kidman
Lyra – Dakota Blue Richards
Lord Asriel – Daniel Craig
Lee Scoresby – Sam Elliott
Serafina Pekkala – Eva Green
First High Councilor – Christopher Lee
Farder Coram – Tom Courtenay
Magisterial Emissary – Derek Jacobi
Roger – Ben Walker
Fra Pavel – Simon McBurney
John Faa – Jim Carter
Ma Costa – Clare Higgins
Master – Jack Shepherd
Mrs. Lonsdale – Magda Szubanski
Second High Councilor – Edward De Souza
Iorek Byrnison – Ian McKellen
Ragnar Sturlusson – Ian McShane
Pantalaimon – Freddie Highmore
Hester – Kathy Bates
Stelmaria – Kristin Scott Thomas

Credits

A New Line Cinema release presented in association with Ingenious Film Partners of a Scholastic production/Depth of Field production. Produced by Deborah Forte, Bill Carraro. Executive producers, Bob Shaye, Michael Lynne, Toby Emmerich, Mark Ordesky, Ileen Maisel, Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz.
Co-producer, Nikolas Korda.
Directed, written by Chris Weitz, based on the book “Northern Lights” by Philip Pullman.
Camera: Henry Braham.
Editors: Peter Honess, Anne V. Coates, Kevin Tent.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Production designer: Dennis Gassner.
Supervising art director: Richard Johnson; art directors, Andrew Nicholson, Chris Lowe.
Set decorator: Anna Pinnock.
Costume designer: Ruth Myers.
Sound: Tony Dawe.
Sound designers: Glenn Freemantle, Tom Sayers; supervising sound editor, Freemantle.
Re-recording mixers, Mike Prestwood Smith, Mark Taylor.
Senior visual effects supervisor, Michael Fink; visual effects, Rhythm & Hues, Framestore CFC, Cinesite (Europe), Digital Domain, Rainmaker Animation and Visual Effects U.K., Tippett Studio and Tippett Studio Montreal, Matte World Digital, Digital Backlot, Peerless Camera Co.; special effects supervisor, Trevor Wood; makeup and hair designer, Peter King; supervising stunt coordinator, Vic Armstrong; stunt coordinator, Paul Jennings.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 118 MIN.