‘Compass’ has no direction
Vail, CO Colorado
“The Golden Compass,” for all the anticipation and possibilities, is a mess. While watching director Chris Weitz’s adaptation of the Philip Pullman young-adult fantasy novel, one wonders whether it should have been made at all. Pullman’s book is a uniquely strange world where people’s souls exist as animals beside them and child heroes learn to cast off the shackles of oppressive religion and authority. It is perhaps too rich for the movies, though, as much of the book’s subtext and fantastic strangeness is lost in a murky script and rushed scene after rushed scene.
Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is an impetuous orphan who lives on the campus of Jordan College, an Oxford-like university, with her dashing professor uncle, Azriel (Daniel Craig). He’s been researching something called “dust,” which binds the universe and may open the opportunity to enter other worlds ” maybe even ours.
The university is at odds with the totalitarian Magisterium, which seems to regard dust as a threat to its authority. Before long, though, the elegant and mysterious Ms. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) swoops in, offering to take Lyra with her to the Arctic, where the source of dust is. Before Lyra goes, though, the head professor gives her a rare golden compass, which allows her to divine the truth behind all things.
Beyond the wonder of the Arctic, Lyra also wants to know what’s happening to the children of her world, who keep disappearing. Her friend Roger disappears, and she resolves to help him. She journeys to the land of Svalbard, home of talking, armor-wearing polar bears and nebulous, snowbound nomads. Through a few strange and not-well-explained coincidences, Lyra hooks up with the disgraced bear-prince Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) and the cowboy aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) to alight into the frozen land of Svalbard in search of her uncle, dust and the missing children.
Like everyone in Pullman’s world, Lyra is accompanied by her animal soul, called a daemon, named Pantalaimon, or Pan for short. Pan shape-shifts between a ferret, moth, mouse and cat, as all children’s daemons do. Adults have “settled” daemons that don’t change, like Azriel’s snow leopard and Coulter’s golden monkey. This is one of the book and film’s most interesting conceits, but it could take up an entire film by itself; when you throw in tough metaphysical concepts like dust and a truth-telling compass, only the most skilled and lean of scripts could keep it from getting muddled.
This is not that movie. By painting the film in broad strokes, the audience loses essential details from nearly every concept in the film. Characters rush from place to place looking for this or that, but it’s never entirely clear why. The movie never slows down to let us get to know any of the main characters or their daemon, so busy as it is piling on poorly executed set pieces. The slew of quality actors give their all, but the material and choppy editing fail them. Craig is interesting but has no more than 10 minutes of screen time, and Kidman is appropriately icy but not given much to do. Elliot is great, as always, playing the grizzled cowboy he knows so well.
Our main character doesn’t fare so well. We’re expected to sympathize and follow Lyra through her misadventures, but she’s mostly unlikable and doesn’t credibly embody the pluck or ingenuity her character is supposed to possess. Richards is a first-timer, and it shows: At best she’s bland; at worst she overacts like a community-theater reject. The book’s Lyra was precocious and devious, but in a manner that made her a compelling antihero; the movie’s Lyra is merely a brat.
The movie does have a few positives: The special effects and production design are well done, full of gilded cities and frozen wastes. The animal daemons are fascinating, and the bear kingdom and bears themselves are wondrously designed.
But we never linger long enough to enjoy any particular moment, and the tone of the script and performances doesn’t match the sumptuous, sometimes dark mood surrounding them. One set piece, a thunderous bear fight, is rousing and exciting, but it comes midway through the film despite being an action climax.
Weitz admirably tries to bring “The Golden Compass” to the screen, but in retrospect, perhaps entrusting the director of “American Pie” to write and direct a sprawling, difficult fantasy epic was a mistake. It has some of the right pieces for a beautifully strange film, but those elements never jell and sometimes even clash. People who are fans of the book will be disappointed with how much is left out or mangled, while neophytes will just wonder what the hell is going on.