Have no fear, Tolkien lovers—Phillip Pullman is not about to steal the big screen title from our beloved Lord of the Rings. The greatest trilogy of all time is still safely sitting in first place, having vanquished previous pretenders to the throne such as The Chronicles of Narnia, the awful Eragon, and the recent The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. All hoped to become future franchise epics. All fully failed to achieve said sense of scope. While there will be a second installment of C. S. Lewis’ veiled theological tall tale, the search for the next big flight of fantasy continues. The latest installment comes from New Line, the company that took the risk on Peter Jackson and wound up winning. Sadly, The Golden Compass feels more like an afterthought than a solid cinematic challenger. While it strives to be the all-inspiring spectacle the genre requires, its universe is too self-contained to truly connect with audiences.
In this parallel place (explained as being like Earth, but with a difference) we meet our heroine in training, young Lyra Belacqua. Constantly followed by her shapeshifting ‘daemon’ Pan (nothing more than the physical incarnation of her soul), this spry orphan is the niece of university science superstar Lord Asriel. By studying something called ‘dust’, the professor has stunned the educational community with his conclusions on temporal placement and the existence of additional worlds. He’s also earned the ire of the Magisterium, an all powerful government cabal that longs for the complete control over—and the undying obedience of—the citizenry.
After her uncle heads to the realm of the ice bears, a place where he can continue his work, the mysterious Mrs. Coulter arrives at the school. She promises to take Lyra to the snowy Northern climes as well. But her motives are far more nefarious. See, our petite protagonist is the last person capable of reading the golden compass, which is actually a truth telling device known as an alethiometer. With it, she hopes to uncover the truth about Coulter, the Magisterium, and the whereabouts of her fellow children. Seems someone has been kidnapping them, and as we soon learn, the reasons are horrifying at best.
Like most mistaken attempts at grandeur, The Golden Compass thinks details can substitute for dimension. In Phillip Pullman’s picturesque predicament, lots of erroneous facts try to make up for a vague, vignette oriented narrative. Unlike true classics of the form, there is not a single overriding goal here. Our lead Lyra is not on some magical quest, nor is she leading a fellowship hoping to rid their realm of the ultimate evil. Instead, what we have here is a series of intriguing possibilities that fail to play out in any significant or satisfying manner. If this is part of New Line and director Chris Weitz’s plan, that’s all fine and well, and if all three films in the His Dark Materials series get made, perhaps this film will feel less foundational. But as a stand alone effort, something styled to entertain us now, The Golden Compass is incomplete.
Most of the problems stem from Lyra’s journey. As an audience, we need the inherent curiosity of the goal to keep us interested. We really should feel the same longing as our hero or heroine. Yet when we learn of everything involved in this story—the totalitarian Magisterium, the findings of Lord Asriel, the unique nature of the ice bears, the hideous truth about the kiddie concentration camp Bolvanger, the wicked witchiness of Mrs. Coulter—only one element stands out. In fact, a kingdom dominated by salient wildlife ends up as The Golden Compass‘s single significant reason for being. Without it, the rest of the film would feel like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T without Theodor Geisel’s gift of satire. In fact, the typical British fascination with child endangerment (Pullman is from the UK) is apparent in every kid stealing subplot here. It often feels like The City of Lost Children without a hint of Caro and Jeanet’s visual grace.
What director Chris Weitz does bring here is a sense of solemnity. He’s not out to cutesy this material, and his lends a nice level of density to some otherwise puffy points. It’s a credit to his approach that a sore thumb moment like Sam Elliot’s arrival onscreen (playing the only Southern drawling sodpounder in all of this mangled multiverse) doesn’t stick out more than it should. Additionally, the filmmaking is so fluid that we don’t even recognize that Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (as Asriel and Coulter, respectively) disappear from the narrative for huge chunks of time. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is much too much going on in The Golden Compass at any one given moment. Either we’re dealing with Lyra’s learning of the ambiguous alethiometer (there are one too many trips into its dust driven mechanical workings) or watching unnamed villains scheme and conspire like a veiled Vatican 2. Christian and Catholics who complain about this movie better get their targets straight. They should focus less on Pullman’s atheism and more on the lamentable lack of fun involved.
By far, the best sequences surround Ian McKellen (apparently, no fantasy film can go forward without his involvement) as the voice of exiled ice bear Iorek Byrnison. Fully aware of how to bring this kind of material to life, we really get involved in his Shakespearean tale of betrayal, loss, and redemption. From retrieving his stolen armor to regaining his rightful place in the polar community, we root for this animal outsider, and his climatic battle with the bruin that usurped his throne stands as the single best sequence in Compass‘s often overwrought running time. In fact, had Weitz found a way to streamline the story a little (his script tries to incorporate more information than a movie can successfully manage) and focus solely on Iorek, Lyra, and the discovery of Bolvanger, we’d enjoy the journey more. Weitz makes the mistake of frontloading things, trying to explain it all before the subtext and side characters are even necessary. Along with the relatively formulaic facets of the tale (guessing Lyra’s parentage is pretty easy), there’s just too much groundwork and not enough sparkle.
Still, in its limited way, The Golden Compass does engage us. The daemon element that opens the film definitely draws us in, and when we see the unbridled fury of the bigger than life bear fight, we hope the movie has made it over the introductory hump. But then the uninspired ending arrives, a cobbled together collection of happenstance, accidents, and deus ex machine broomsticking. Unlike the battles for Middle Earth, there is no splendor in this confrontation, no feeling of dignity among the defenders and amorality amongst the attackers. No, it’s just a showpiece send off, a way of getting the first part of the plot over with before jumping into the second book’s storyline. When he made The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson took all three books and conceived them as a single entity, taking aspects of each to elevate his overall concept for the films. Here, New Line and Weitz are obviously hedging their bets. The “one at a time” ideal means The Golden Compass has to do a lot of Pullman and Dark Material‘s heavy lifting. Sadly, it can’t handle it all.