When writer/director Chris Weitz adapted the first of Philip Pullman’s three His Dark Materials novels into a feature film, he skirted around the book’s anti-religion elements in order to cater to notoriously over-sensitive Christian groups. That’s alright, in The Golden Compass the Church was really only a stand in for any authoritarian, repressive organization and so Weitz has replaced them with generic fascists. It still gets the message across. Should the other books in the series ever get adapted, it may become more of a problem, since the story’s twists and turns lead to a desperate battle to kill God with the help of gay Angels. There’s no getting around that. No wonder the Catholic Church is protesting Weitz’s religiously cleansed Golden Compass anyway, perhaps afraid that if people see it, the rest of the books will get made and suddenly they’ll have a pew full of parishioners trying to stick Yaweh in the gut with a shiv. Or something like that.
For now though, Pullman’s tale is little damaged by a filmmaker’s fear of offending right-wingers, and The Golden Compass sticks rather closely to the narrative on which it’s based. It’s still the tale of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a precocious little girl in a parallel world, caught up in magic and intrigue beyond her ken.
We first meet little Lyra scrambling through the streets around the University where she lives, playing games with the group of boys who are her enemies and friends. Her world is one not so different from our own, but yet very different in fundamental ways. It seems eternally trapped in the 18th Century, except an 18th Century where magic is real and often put to such humdrum uses as pulling horseless carriages. The carriages are horseless, because the animals in her world are all daemons. A daemon is the physical manifestation of a person’s soul. Every man and woman alive in Lyra’s world has one, and it takes the form of a talking animal, the shape it takes and the personality exudes being literal manifestations of who that person is on the inside. In Lyra’s world no one is ever alone, and on a cold night everybody has something fuzzy to cuddle up with. Teddy bear sales have no doubt been long mired in recession.
The daemons are a neat gimmick, but one fraught with filmmaking peril. Too much of them and Pullmans’ intrinsically dark and edgy tale turns into a mad caricature full of silly, Bugs Bunny like creatures running amok amongst humans. Too little of them, and the essential oddity of the story is lost, leaving us with yet another in a long line of bland, Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings clones. Weitz acceptably walks the line between those two extremes, giving us enough daemons to keep it interesting, but leaving the humans at the center of the story while daemons hang around in the background, out of frame, off camera, sometimes barely noticed as they would be if we were actually there with Lyra, and as used to seeing them and interacting with them as you would be any other appendage, like a pinky finger.
Soon after we meet them, Lyra and her daemon Pant are launched into adventure. She’s taken to live with the evil Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who though breathtakingly beautiful, is up to no good. Mrs. Coulter had a hand in kidnapping Lyra’s best friend Roger and so Lyra, with the help of an all too conveniently introduced band of nomadic sea-faring Gyptians, journeys to the far frozen north. There she’ll attempt to rescue her friend, meeting witches, Ice Bears and aeronauts along the way. Moment to moment the movie’s entertaining enough. Watching a talking polar bear slap on a suit of armor and charge into battle is pretty cool, and in his all too few and too brief moments on screen Sam Elliott runs away with the movie as a cowboy balloonist named Lee Scoresby with a jackrabbit daemon named Hester (voiced by Kathy Bates). But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of the movie aside from the CGI and hand to hand fighting, intrigue and political maneuvering which Weitz glosses over with tedious, and predictable exposition scenes that never really fit in with the rest of the movie.
There’s just too much exposition and not enough explanation in Weitz’s film. His script spends a lot of time talking about the complexities of Lyra’s world, but little time showing any of it. I wonder if anyone who hasn’t already read the book will have any idea what’s going on. Most of what happens comes off as convenient, lazily written coincidence; if you haven’t read the book you’ll probably think it one of those movies where things turn out the way they do simply because it’s a movie, and not because there’s any rhyme or reason to what’s happened. Whether or not you’ve read the books you’ll enjoy The Golden Compass on some level, but it feels rushed, and I doubt anyone who hasn’t already read the books will be interested in going back for more if there’s ever a sequel.