© 2007 Ray Wong
With all the anti-religion controversy around The Golden Compass, one can easily overlook the most important aspect of the film: Is it any good?
The story is set in an alternate universe in which Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan living at the Oxford's Jordan College with her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). In this universe, a human's soul is embodied in the shape of an animal companion called Daemons, and the world is governed by an organization named Magisterium. When Lord Asriel discovers the appearance of "dust" in the Arctics, he convinces the university to sponsor an expedition. You see, "dust" is a mysterious material that connects the multiple universes. The Magisterium tries to stop Lord Asriel for the discovery may jeopardize their control.
Before Lord Asriel sets out on his trip, he gives Lyra a special gift: a golden compass called Alethiometer that can show the truth. A mysterious woman, Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) promises Lyra to take her to the Arctics to see her uncle, but Lyra discovers that she's really after the Alethiometer. When Lyra's best friend, Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped, she vows to go to the Arctics to rescue him. On her way, she meets a nomadic group including Ma Costa (Clare Higgins) who used to be her nanny and is also the mother of Billy Costa, one of the missing children. Lyra also becomes associated with an armored polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen). The group travels north to find the children while Ms. Coulter is hot on Lyra's trail.
Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding) is excellent as the conniving Ms. Coulter. She shows a good range that gives her character some depth instead of playing her straight-up evil. Kidman's beauty further accentuates her expressiveness to give us a convincing performance. While her Invasion co-star Daniel Craig (Casino Royale) also gets top billing, he doesn't really have much to do. His role is completely supportive in this film and we can only assume that it will be bigger and more central in the sequels (The Golden Compass is the first book of Pullman's series).
As the young heroine, Dakota Blue Richards (The Secret of Moonacre) carries much of the film on her shoulders. Considering this is her acting debut, I think she does a marvelous job. She shows enough defiance to portray Lyra's character without making her a brat. Ben Walker (Sweeney Todd) is fine in his small role as Lyra's best friend. The generally good live-action cast includes Eva Green (Casino Royale) as the Witch Queen, Sam Elliott (Ghost Rider) as a traveler, and Clare Higgins (Libertine) as Ma Costa. The huge cast also include Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) as Lyra's Daemon, Ian McKellen (X-Men) as Iorek, and Ian McShane (We Are Marshall) as Iorek's mortal enemy, Ragnar.
Despite the huge cast, the story is rather straightforward as an action adventure. The plot picks up rather quickly and moves forward at a brisk pace. However, at 113 minutes, the exposition and character development feel rushed. Based on Philip Pullman's highly spiritual and controversial series, Chris Weitz's (About a Boy) script is convoluted when it comes to the characters' relationships with one another. Characters seem to come and go without a lot of explanation. The exposition about this world is too brief and requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. The Daemons, for example, seem rather silly even if you consider it's a children's fantasy. Talking animals simply look too cartoonish. Not to mention we don't have enough time to explore this alternate universe where witches fight along with armored polar bears, or how exactly the Alethiometer works.
I can follow the plot just fine, but there are too many plot holes and missing pieces for us to be fully engaged. Most of the time, the characters are just running from one place to another, meeting new people along the way. The plot seems to be more concerned about introducing all the key players instead of having a coherent arc or purpose. It feels expository even though it's action packed. Yet, it doesn't spend enough time actually developing these characters and their relationships. Weitz also cuts out the obvious anti-religion messages. I can understand why, but at the same time, it neuters the story for it really is, and Pullman's series are deeply spiritual -- none of that is present in this film.
Weitz's direction is adequate. The production value is good, even though some scenes look too CG. There are some wonderful set pieces, including an exciting combat between two polar bears. Still, even with its delightful visuals, the film lacks certain "magical" quality that is evident in, say, The Chronicles of Narnia. The sense of wonderment is also lacking. Instead, I chuckle at times at the absurdity and silliness of this "alternate universe." The second half is also remarkably dark and violent -- I was surprised by a few battle scenes with enough carnage that I don't think is suitable for children at all.
The film fails at completely immersing me in that world. Even with its visuals and overall good performances, this compass is rather short of being golden.
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Eva Green, Sam Elliott, Ian McShane, Clare Higgins
Director: Chris Weitz
Writer: Chris Weitz (based on novel by Philip Pullman)
Distributor: New Line Cinema
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 6.5 out of 10