Reality is made up of many universes, some where a person’s soul is actually inside him. On twelve-year-old Lyra’s (Dakota Blue Richards) world, each person’s soul takes the form of an animal. Lyra’s world is also under the thumb of the Magisterium, which suppresses all knowledge it can’t control, particularly about the mysterious “dust.” Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), Lyra’s inattentive guardian pits himself against the Magisterium in a quest for truth, and takes off for the snowy north. In his absence, the sinister Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) takes Lyra under her wing, but the young girl soon discovers her evil ways and escapes. Teaming up with a gang of ocean traveling Gyptians, an armored talking bear (voiced by Ian McKellen), and an aviator (Sam Elliott), Lyra heads north as well, but on a different mission: to save the children kidnapped by the Magisterium from an unknown fate. Her greatest asset is a golden compass that will answer any question if you know how to ask it, and that only she can read.
It is difficult to consider The Golden Compass in a vacuum, and I admit I can’t do it. It is an elaborate fantasy tale based on a popular series of young adult books (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy), featuring a youthful hero (heroine) who suddenly discovers magical powers, a dark secret, a prophecy, evil forces, and loads of friends, many lovingly crafted with the latest computer technology. It is a huge film with some new faces and a lot of well known stars. That description could work equally well for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The audiences for them are the same as well. Luckily, there’s room at the table for another high fantasy adventure, provided it’s a good one. And The Golden Compass is a good one—not great, but good. That’s another way it is like the others.
The strongest point to The Golden Compass is its world: a steam-punk vision, with blimps hovering over Victorian spires. It is always beautiful, even when we leave the impressive cities for snow covered wastes. It never has the feeling of constraint which dogged Narnia. But the look of the world is only a small part of it. The cultures and peoples are worth far more study than a two hour film can afford them. Plus, you’ve got to love a flying, ass-kicking Eva Green as the leader of the witches (good witches that is). The greatest fun comes from the “daemons,” the external souls that accompany everyone except talking bears. Children’s daemons shift from one animal to another until puberty locks them in a single shape (yup, there’s a metaphor or two there if you’re looking). The sharper and more imaginative the child, the more forms the daemon takes. You can imagine that Lyra’s is all over the board. Harm a daemon, and the person feels it, and vica versa. You can also tell how people are feeling, or what they are truly like, by watching their animals. Mrs. Coulter is beautiful and elegant (not difficult for Nicole Kidman to pull off), but one sight of her sidekick and you know her heart’s a dead tomato splot with moldy purple spots.
Easily carrying the story is Dakota Blue Richards, a child actress with skills far beyond her years and experience. She doesn’t get by just by being cute (she certainly is), but by inhabiting the character of Lyra. She was a real find. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of Richards. She is ably backed up with some of the best in the business: Kidman, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, and Christopher Lee. Richards could easily have been lost in such company, but she outshines them all. She’s also supported by Sam Elliott, which is fine for her, but not so good for the film; he’s plays the same kind of friendly “cowboy” he’s portrayed a dozen times before and was tired the first time.
Recent fantasy films, those mentioned above as well as the five hundred pound gorilla in the room, The Lord of the Rings, have astonished viewers with extraordinary special effects, and in that arena, there’s a new champ. The Golden Compass is phenomenal, using the advances made with Narnia as a starting place. It could not have been made even five years ago. A ferret morphs to a cat then to a small flying creature and it’s perfect. A pair of talking, roaring, armor-wearing bears duel to the death and they look like bears, not cuddly humanoids. If it’s a wow factor you want, you won’t be disappointed.
Less impressive is the plot. It never feels important. Lyra’s quest to save a few score children is too small after seeing the scope of the world’s problems, and isn’t personal enough to evoke much emotion. Yes, Lyra has a few friends among the missing; that may give her quest more meat in the book, but onscreen it just doesn’t matter.
Since this is essentially a coming-of-age girl-power story, Lyra needs to be saving the day, but she rarely does. She sets things in motion, but then, far too much like Narnia, is saved by the impeccable timing of the cavalry. Much of the problem comes from the non-standalone nature of the source. The Golden Compass is the introduction to the larger narrative yet to come. Let’s hope the two sequels are green-lit. As with The Lord of the Rings, it’s best to judge the result only after the entire work has screened.
Pullman, an outspoken critic of C. S. Lewis’s heavy-handed Christian preaching in the Narnia books, gave His Dark Materials a free-thinking, atheistic foundation. This has caused a Catholic organization and multiple evangelical groups to call for a boycott. Of course, none of these people have seen the film, and, as is usually the case, they’ve missed the boat. I would have been amused to see an anti-Christian bias in the movie, just to give it some bite, but it isn’t there. Fearing it would harm ticket sales, the studio and director have crafted a movie incapable of offending anyone.