“You do know that if you get a smack, it hurts me too.” His slightly high pitch reflecting his worry, the daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore) means here to remind his human, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), of their most fundamental intertwining: he embodies her soul, and their physical states do depend on and reflect each other’s. Yet he also serves as something like a naïve conscience, anxiously insisting on the rules that 12-year-old Lyra tends to break.
At this early point in The Golden Compass, another child’s adventure based on a book series, the transgression seems minor: Lyra wants to sneak into a room where she’s not supposed to go, searching for clues as to the current doings of her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). She and Pan live with Asriel at this alternative Oxford’s Jordan College, the sober institution where he conducts research.
Hiding in the closet, Lyra sees what she’s not supposed to see, drawing her reluctantly into maturity. First, an attempt by the unctuous Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney) to poison Asriel (that is, humans can be evil), and second, her uncle’s demonstration of the potential existence of Dust, material emblem of what the elders term “all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world.” These elders, it happens, are all members of the Magisterium, a forbidding institution marked by ornate architecture and a singular investment in maintaining order. “There will always be free thinkers and heretics,” warns the Magisterial Emissary (Derek Jacobi), and he means to combat them.
While Lyra watches from her hiding place, Asriel makes a different case for Dust, urging the College to fund his journey to the North Pole in search of this sign of the existence of other “worlds of infinite possibilities… even some where there is no Magisterium, no authority.” She’s mesmerized, he’s resolute, and his stuffy academic listeners are aghast. Research is one thing, but heresy, well, that’s something else.
Still, they agree to the venture, in part because the plot must move forward and in part because they are at least feigning concern at a currently troublesome phenomenon, the disappearance of children from the College and it environs. The children understand the risk, and speak with each other about the Gobblers, thuggish-looking fellows who skulk in shadows and grab up kids for an insidious plot involving their forceful separation from their daemons. While adult daemons are “settled,” children’s are still in flux; Pan, for instance, shifts from ferret to bird to mouse, depending on Lyra’s mood or need. As children mature, their daemons become fixed, just as their futures begin to look set, and their splitting essentially stifles puberty, that transition into sex and knowledge that worries adults in too many worlds. This “intercision” is the latest and most devastating practice by which children are made to conform to rules dictated by the Magisterium.
Any similarity between Christianity and the Magisterium is left to you to determine, as Chris Weitz’s film adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy tries very hard to erase all references that might offend anyone. Still, the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue has for weeks been decrying the film as “bait for the books,” and calling for a boycott. This free publicity has hardly stopped New Line from imagining the film as its first step in a franchise to replace the lucrative Lord of the Rings, and yes, how ironic it is that the films’ sources seem so violently opposed.
And yet, their formulaic plots could not be more alike. Lyra and Frodo (and Harry Potter, the Pevensie kids, and Odysseus, for that matter) undergo fantastic tests of their mettles, find their very special fates, and in the process meet up with fellowships comprised of motley “others.” Lyra’s supporters believe her to be the girl prophesied to be able to read the Alethiometer, a golden compass that “tells the truth.” Indeed, when Lyra is given the Compass, she can read it (and lucky for us she provides translation of every basic plot point illustrated, because the film’s version of what she sees in the Compass — digitized swirly shadows — is impenetrable).
Her gift puts Lyra at risk from the Council’s primary agent, the utterly icy Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Accompanied by her own daemon, a golden-coated digital monkey of badly rendered but strangely affecting facial expressions, Mrs. Coulter exhibits all manner of emotional and ethical dysfunction. Perhaps the most egregious demonstration comes in a moment of frustration, when she slaps the monkey away, causing it and herself some pain. She immediately regrets her action and cradles the creature so that its poorly digitized blue eyes fill the frame from over her shoulder, sorrowful and unspeakably creepy.
This has got to be the oddest moment in a film filled with odd moments, for all the sexual, social, and spiritual repressions on display. “I could never hurt you!” Mrs. Coulter cries, even as she so plainly has hurt her daemon/herself. Suggesting at once Mrs. Coulter’s devotion to her Magisterial mission, her fears of soulful and sensual embodiment, and yes, her own split self, the revelation of her fundamental damage all but stops the film’s action.
But it lurches back into motion, cutting away to more of Lyra’s free thinking. Having escaped from her would-be mentor’s clutches, Lyra is cast into a flurry of not-so-well organized subplots. Her search for her disappeared best friend Roger (Ben Walker), occasions her assembly of a crew including a band of Gyptians (led by Tom Courtenay), the cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot, whose wry warmth has never been so welcome in a film), and the conveniently appearing flying witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green). Surely Lyra’s most magnificent new friend is the armored polar bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), a onetime king now reduced to performing tricks at a dingy pub. Lyra and company head out into the snowy wilderness, where they encounter a series of difficulties (including Iorek Byrnison’s brutal battle with the current bear king Ragnar Sturlusson [Ian McShane]).
As even this condensed summary suggests, the movie is typically overplotted, cramming in too many set-ups for subsequent films based on subsequent books. It is also likely to be a disappointment for both fans of Pullman’s books and those boycotters expecting heresies. Too bland and disjointed to match up with either set up expectations, The Golden Compass is too familiar to be beguiling, too interested in appeasing masses and the Corgi toy line. How monumentally ironic and predictable that dear Lyra, by turns tenacious and contrary, charming and restless, articulates the credo the film cannot actually abide. When instructed by one adult that, “Sometimes you must do what others think best,” she has the ready and reasonable answer: “I thought we were best if we were free to do as we please.” The film’s sights are set much lower than “best.”