The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, is the latest trilogy-in-the-making to grace theatres. Based on a series of books called His Dark Materials by British author and atheist Philip Pullman the film comes to audiences riding a wave of controversy.
Although The Golden Compass won the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature and by public vote, (by readers from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia), the title of “best children’s book of the past 70 years,” several schools have banned the book (including some in Canada) because of a perceived anti-religion bias. I haven’t read the books, but based on the movie the plot appears to be nothing more than a simple adventure story in which good battles evil.
Set in a world that seems to have been ripped from the deepest recesses of Jules Verne’s imagination, The Golden Compass takes place in an alternate reality England in which giant zeppelins ferry people from place to place and everyone has an ever-present “daemon,” an animal spirit, like a witch’s familiar, that reflects the power, significance, and personality of its human. This imaginative world is beautifully rendered in the film—there can’t be one second of the movie that has not been retouched by CGI—and is a treat for the eyes.
As for the story, it centers on Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a wild child orphan living with her adventurer-scientist uncle Lord Asriel, (Daniel Craig) at Jordan College. While she is out causing trouble with her pals, he has discovered a link between golden cosmic dust in the Arctic Circle and other mystical parallel worlds. The existence of other worlds goes counter to the teachings of the Orwellian ruling class, known as the Magisterium, who want his expedition to the north stopped one way or another. At this time Lyra is given the last remaining Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, a device that can enable her “to see what others wish to hide.”
Just as Lyra’s BFF Roger disappears, the icily mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) visits the school. She whisks Lyra off to a magnificent mansion with the promise of taking her to the northland to meet her uncle. When it becomes clear that Mrs. Coulter may not be as kind as she initially appeared, Lyra sneaks away, and begins the search for her friend and uncle with the help of some unlikely allies including an armor-wearing polar bear king (voiced by Ian McKellen), a dirigible flying cowboy (Sam Elliott) and airborne witches.
The final battle scene is intense, although a little more kid-friendly than anything in Lord of the Rings, pitting the forces of good—Lyra and her friends—against evil—everyone else. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the story if only the movie had stopped there.
Instead the action continues after the battle with a scene in which the willful Lyra describes how she’ll “set things right.” She goes on to remind us of several plot threads we may have forgotten about after the spectacle of the battle.
Trouble is she doesn’t plan on doing any of this stuff until the next movie. She sets up the sequel as the picture fades to black. I understand that New Line intends to spin this into a trio of films, but the way it stands this one doesn’t feel like it ends, so much as it just trails off without feeling finished. It feels like a cheat to fool people into paying to see the next movie to find out story info that should have been in this one. It’s an old trick, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.
Filmmakers with an eye toward creating an on going cycle of movies should refer back to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, which were so finely crafted they can stand on their own individually or work as a connected series.
Before the cliffhanger ending deflated my mood I had a good time at The Golden Compass. The special effects are plentiful and well executed and mesh well with the live action.
First timer Dakota Blue Richards has the Artful Dodger act down pat, although I wonder where she picked up an accent that sounds like cockney crossed with James Cagney gangster slang seeing that the only home she’s ever known is the posh Jordan College where everyone else speaks as though channeling Queen Victoria.
Nicole Kidman appears to be one Botox shot away from total facial paralysis, but she plays a villain—she’s mean to kids and even slaps a monkey!—even more terrifying than her namesake, American political chatterbox Ann Coulter. She, like Daniel Craig, doesn’t have much screen time, but makes the most of her appearances.
Yes, The Golden Compass has its moments; it’s just too bad that the film’s final moments are such a let down.