Amidst a maelstrom of controversy, The Golden Compass, the first novel of Phillip Pullman's extraordinary trilogy His Dark Materials, has finally made its big screen debut. Like the book, the movie takes place on a parallel Earth, where each person goes through life with a daemon, a physical manifestation of their soul in animal form.
The story unfolds when orphan Lyra Belaqua (Dakota Blue Richards), raised by the scholars of Jordan College, overhears a meeting involving her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), where she learns of the mysterious substance "Dust." The glamorous, charismatic Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) appears soon after and arranges for Lyra to accompany her on a journey to the North. Before leaving Jordan College, two events profoundly change Lyra's direction. The Gobblers, who have been kidnapping Gyptian (seafaring Gypsy) children, take two of Lyra's closest friends. Later, at the behest of her uncle, the school's master gives Lyra the last remaining alethiometer, a golden compass that tells the truth, but only to those who can understand how to read it.
These events thrust Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), into a series of epic adventures. Along the way they befriend an armored bear and ousted prince Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), meet the alluring witch-messenger Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), fly the skies with the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot), and join the Gyptians on their hunt for the missing children.
While it sounds exciting, The Golden Compass moves at a snail's pace. Director/screenwriter Chris Weitz has filled the lumbering scenes with unnecessary and cumbersome exposition that results in a dumbed-down film apparently made for just children. Weitz's film inspires absolutely no emotional investment as it is stripped of the complexity and subtext of Pullman's original story.
On the other hand, the overt anti-organized religion allusions that alarmed so many Christians were removed as well. Weitz has purged the religious context from the Magisterium, Earth's intellectual and political arbiter, turning it into a generic representation of organized oppressive political authority. This insidious bit of simplification turns an intricate, occasionally ambivalent power system into a lifeless straw man, a two-dimensional Bad that exists only as a canvas on which our heroes can splash their outrage and against which they can display their independence.
As an action fantasy film, The Golden Compass fails, too. Lifeless direction and chaotic, bloodless fights leave the viewer flat. Even the much anticipated armored bear fight ends quickly and provides little tension or insight into the Bear culture, though it produces the sole gruesome moment in the film.
Weitz's previous directorial credits include American Pie, Down To Earth, and About A Boy, none of which scream fantasy, or even action. He is no Peter Jackson, who effortlessly made the leap from horror to fantasy. Ironically, at the screening the theater showed a trailer for Prince Caspian, the second book in The Chronicles of Narnia, the most successful Christian young adult fiction series of the 20th century. Perhaps Jews, Muslims, and atheists should band together to protest the Narnia films since they expose children to a Christian agenda hidden in a fun-filled, friendly fantasy.
Gorgeous visual effects (particularly the daemons) and superior acting (especially Dakota Blue Richards' authentic portrayal of a fierce twelve year-old girl) further accent the film's many deficits, making The Golden Compass the most disappointing movie of the year.
Thankfully, Chris Weitz recently announced he is not directing the forthcoming Elric movie. One mishandled fantasy series is enough.