Great expectations can lead to great disappointments. As a fan of Philip Pullman’s ”His Dark Materials” series, I eagerly awaited the theatrical release of the first chapter in the trilogy, The Golden Compass. The book alone was a great fantasy story, but a movie version starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig? Hot! Or not.
Nicole Kidman: ‘The Golden Compass’
It’s released by New Line Cinema, the same studio that brought us the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is a fact they made sure to highlight in early trailers as a golden ring morphed into a golden compass. The problem with comparing a movie to Lord of the Rings is that the movie is going to be compared to Lord of the Rings. And The Golden Compass is no Lord of the Rings.
The immediate challenge facing any director of a fantasy film is explaining the mythology that supports the story. The Golden Compass takes place in a world parallel to our own, the main difference being (aside from the witches) is that souls exist on the outside of the body, taking form as a daemon. Daemons (pronounced demon) are bound to their humans and change shapes during childhood — birds, cats, dogs, wolves, rabbits — but stabilize into a single animal shape when adulthood is reached.
Accompanied by her shape-shifting daemon, young orphaned Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is filled with moxie, spunk and a wild sense of adventure. When her uncle (Daniel Craig) heads north in search of the mystical Dust, Lyra finds herself entrusted to the sinister yet fabulously-dressed Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Everyone knows that Lyra is special, which is why she is entrusted to possess the alethiometer, a truth-telling device. One of the few able to read the gadget, Lyra follows the signs north, tracking both her uncle and a number of children who have been kidnapped.
The bulk of the acting in the movie rests on the young shoulders of Richards, who does an admirable job considering she’s often playing opposite CGI polar bears and daemons. Much like the early Harry Potter films, Lyra’s dawning revelations are simply stated, lacking any degree of subtly that a more experienced actor might be able to generate. At one point, Lyra transforms into a young Lolita to seduce the polar bear king, which is troubling even as it demonstrates her potential. If the trilogy plays out on screen, Richards could show great improvement in future installments.
Craig is given seriously short shrift in the film, though he does have his one Bond-moment of running, jumping and fighting. However, he’s so bundled up against the cold that it’s not the visual eye candy Casino Royale provided. Kidman, on the other hand, has finely tuned the creepy Mrs. Coulter. Her entrance is stunning, shimmering along in her gold dress, and her evil pseudo-stepmother role is worthy of a Disney villainess.
However, the film falls prey to the need to set up Pullman’s world. Just as The Golden Compass starts to find its pace, it’s over. The last 20 minutes are far superior to the first hour and a half. It’s not until the end that the conflicts truly begin — including a jaw-dropping polar bear fight. For the first half of the film, drama is attempted through loud, stirring music and close-ups. That fails. Fortunately, director Chris Weitz recovers and allows the story to find its own voice in the final moments. Until then, it’s hard to decide which he enjoys more, zooming into the alethiometer to show its answers in shimmering snapshots or exploding daemons in great glitter swirls — I mean Dust — when a human dies.
An important caveat to the praise the film rightly deserves in its latter parts is that it ends so perfectly staged for the next installment that audience members actually groaned when the credits started. So close to a great ending, yet still so far to go.
Avid fans of the Pullman books may very well be happy with the first film: The daemons are fantastic, the witches are sexy and fierce, and it will likely be enough of a commercial success to ensure the other two installments are made. However, those who are expecting the next great movie experience are going to be disappointed. Lyra is no Frodo.