3 out of 4 stars
While book adaptations aren’t always the best type of movie, some have been able to garner financial and/or critical success. Harry Potter has clearly seen the most financial success while recent Oscar contender No Country for Old Men has received critical praise. “The Golden Compass,” the first film based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material trilogy, isn’t getting the hype Harry Potter has received since day one, however. Aside from it being a lesser known series, it has been attacked by Christian fanatics trying to bring down the film for the books’ dark, semi-Satanic undertones (the series is geared towards an older youth crowd, but also adults). But director Chris Weitz has managed to pull through the ramblings and create a darkly satisfying film.
We know dust as a collection of particles that accumulates on items left in place for too long, but in the world of “The Golden Compass,” it means much more. There are multiple worlds revolving around in parallel universes and dust is what connects them. Through dust, one can find a way to access these other worlds, and that is exactly what Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is trying to do.
But the story focuses on his niece, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) and her adventures starting in Jordan College, Oxford. She spends her days parading around with her friends, but there is something different with these children, and even adults: animals follow them about. These animals are daemons, which are essentially an extension of themselves; a conscience, of sorts. While an adult’s daemon remains as a single animal, a child’s is ever changing until it chooses its final form. Lyra’s has the name Pan but shifts between a ferret, bird, and cat. Strange things start to brew once she notices children go missing from the school and when she overhears talk of dust during her uncle’s visit, she is immediately sought after by Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), leader of the Magistrate. The Magistrate is a pseudo-super government that suppresses free thought amongst people. Lyra is given the Golden Compass by one of the school elders, which gives her the power to see the truth in anything. After a shocking realization about what Coulter is really trying to do, Lyra sets off on an adventure to stop the Magistrate and (by coincidence) save free thought.
There is more to the story, but indulging into more facts would only spoil chunks of the film. Overall, the “The Golden Compass” doesn’t have the same sort of welcome feeling that movies like “Harry Potter” or “Narnia” have, which hurts the film to a certain extent. It also starts off a bit slow but does manage to get the main point across without losing the attention of the audience. The main oddity, though, lies in Kidman’s performance. Typically a terrific actor, she seems a bit out of place. Maybe it’s how the character is supposed to be, but she doesn’t come off in a positive way-and not just because she’s part of the source of villainy. She appears odd, antsy, almost unsure.
Craig’s role is seemingly unspeakable, because he’s not in it that much. He plays an important role no doubt, but he’ll have to wait for the sequel to shine (he’ll be able to shine as James Bond again first, though). Dakota “Not Fanning” Blue Richards does well in her first film. She’s strong enough, confident in her poise, but still has the child aspect to keep her grounded, something her role demands. Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby, despite being the same type of Western character he’s been playing, was a great addition. And it was great to see the stunning Eva Green get to fight as Serafina Pekkala, a witch.
As mentioned, the film starts relatively slow but picks up after a while. What really helps start it going is ice bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Sir Ian McKellan), who comes to Lyra’s aid. The momentum is just right, and if that’s not enough for you, wait until the ice bear fight. You’ll realize that you’ve always longed to see polar bears fight. The ending fight is well done and shows the savagery of the Magistrate’s troops. Leading up to it, heavy anti-fascist sentiments can be felt, straying away from the religious tones the books carry.
No matter how well this does financially, New Line has already guaranteed a sequel. The end kicks and screams for it. Thankfully, the film is worthy of a sequel, if only to see how the rest of the storyline ends. Even with its dark tones, “The Golden Compass” should be a holiday hit amongst the older youth crowd and even further up the ladder.