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The Golden Compass   C-

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Chris Weitz
Writer: Chris Weitz (based on the novel by Philip Pullman)
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Christopher Lee, Tom Courtenay, Derek Jacobi, Ben Walker, Simon McBurney, Jim Carter, Clare Higgins, Jack Shepherd.

Review by Rob Vaux

Oh you sweet foolish filmmakers. You play the notes so earnestly, yet none of you -- not a single one -- hears the music. Which isn't to say that The Golden Compass, a thudding and lugubrious adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy series, could be mistaken for music. The true symphony came and went with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and we've been thriving modestly well on arias from Harry Potter and Aslan the lion ever since. But this? Too little, too late, and too damn clueless about what it's supposed to be doing.

Certainly, The Golden Compass goes through the motions enthusiastically enough, giving us a young protagonist thrust into tests and trials during a journey through a magical land while dark forces conspire to destroy and/or seduce her. Every step is lifted straight from Joseph Campbell's Mythic Storytelling for Dummies... except that writer-director Sam Weitz fails to assemble it with the required elegance. It's glommed together in ungainly chunks: key events appearing unannounced and dropping their required baggage before shambling away, never to be heard from again. The actors deliver expository dialogue with uniform devotion, yet never touch upon the twinkling magic that would bring this world to life. Expensive effects tower over us, the soundtrack hums with bombast and noise, and stunning vistas ranging from Oxford-style metropolises to arctic moonscapes roll impressively off the screen. But for all their hollow majesty, nothing we see ever sets fire to the blood, imbues us with wonder, or opens any of the characters to our hearts.

Part of the problem stems from the film's need to explain the details of its universe -- a challenge all stories of this ilk must master if they hope to succeed. The plot involves a parallel version of Earth, where science has taken on the fanciful hues of Jules Verne and individual souls appear as animal familiars walking alongside their owners. It has some nasty folks in charge, of course -- quasi-religious inquisitors infused with a touch of the Orwellian -- as well as heroic scientists trying to reverse centuries of benighted dogma with the blazing light of truth. The point of contention between them is Dust, a luminous substance which permits travel to other parallel worlds. The bad guys want to pretend it doesn't exist, while the good guys want to explore the wonders of the cosmos with it. First team to score wins.

Then along comes plucky little girl du jour Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), loaded down with prophecies and portents and mystical abilities she doesn't quite understand. When her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) leaves her behind to go study the Dust, the forces of evil dispatch schoolmarm-from-hell Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to spirit her away. One tacked-on escape later, Lyra finds herself heading into the northern wilderness to warn Asriel about the growing danger. En route, she picks up the usual band of scruffy misfits: a blimp-flying cowboy (Sam Elliott), an alcoholic polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellan), and Eva Green pulling some kind of spooky Wiccan priestess number out of her hat.

Apparently, they all have to save a bunch of kidnapped children too.

The arbitrary and haphazard way The Golden Compass assembles these elements masks its not-insignificant achievement of keeping all the details clear. Its universe remains more or less consistent, and newcomers to Pullman's writing should have no trouble understanding what's going on. Yet too often, that clarity comes at the expense of audience interest. We're told about this nook or that cranny in such matter-of-fact terms that the imagination presumably at the heart of it gets lost in the mix. The film screws each piece of its story together like a car on an assembly line, never thinking about the underlying purpose to their presence but including them simply because someone said that they needed to be included.

Moreover, much of it relies on undue gimmickry: neat details included regardless of whether they make any sense in the completed whole. C.S. Lewis got away with similar shenanigans (conceptually speaking, Narnia's a mess) because of his near-perfect storytelling style. The Golden Compass proves far less deft than he in that department. The editing focuses on cognizance without attendant logic, moving us from one scene to another while missing the consistency that lets them flow together as a whole. It never progresse; the emotional arc simply doesn't elevate things in any appreciable manner. Instead, we get mechanistic rows of ruthlessly linked set pieces, each one introducing a new character or piece of information for no reason other than the plot requires it to move forward.

Weitz seems intent on cramming in as much of the source novel as he can without considering how ungainly it all becomes. Had he been more willing to excise a few elements -- Green's cadre of witch spirits, for example, or the "Gyptian" nomads who help Lyra in her quest -- the rhythms might have arrived more smoothly, and the characters might have connected more closely to the circumstances surrounding them. New Line clearly hopes to make more of these films, aping the success of its Rings franchise with a reliable cash cow every couple of years. But The Golden Compass proves so hopelessly inferior to that effort that one wonders if a second film is even feasible. When Gandalf the Grey said a war was coming, you could feel the dread reverberating from the screen. When Green delivers the same basic line, it produces a shrug and passive sift through the popcorn tub. Like its protagonists, The Golden Compass stands fundamentally isolated from its soul; unlike them, it hasn't the first idea where it left the bloody thing.

Review published 12.07.2007.

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