Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Golden Compass

With the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling showed the world that kiddy-lit can be entertaining as well as deep and thought-provoking, and can appeal to adults just as much as children. Naturally, the greedy movie execs thought, "Kiddie fantasy is big right now, especially British kiddie fantasy." Following the "if it ain't broke, run it into the ground until it is" philosophy, movie-makers looked to Phillip Pullman and his His Dark Materials series in order to continue the trend. Thus the first movie, The Golden Compass, was born.

Poor intentions aside, The Golden Compass is a fun ride, and even a good story. It features performances that range from a little bland to downright skillful, and seems to promote the innocence of childhood, as well as denounce people who try to control others. Dakota Blue Richards does a splendid job as Lyra, the main character, an orphan girl of about 11 years. She lives at Jordan College in Oxford, England, and is taken care of, but generally forgotten. Richards carries the film with surprising aplomb considering that this is her very first film. Supporting performances include Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, a government official who takes Lyra under her wing, Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, Lyra’s adventurous and somewhat distant uncle, the voice of Ian McKellan as Iorek Byrnison, a giant talking polar bear, and Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby, a cowboy (complete with six-shooter and accent) who flies a zeppelin. Kidman is sweet/conniving enough as Mrs. Coulter, but is very lacking in depth most of the time. Craig plays a much softer version of Lord Asriel than in the books, and suffers from not enough screen time. The ice bear Iorek is pretty well done, but I can’t help thinking that Gollum was so much better every time he comes on the screen. And Elliot plays his part well, but the part itself is just slightly too clichéd.

The new and not-so-new ideas in this movie abound, including a person’s soul existing outside their body, called a dæmon. A person’s dæmon exists as an animal manifestation of that person, and the form it takes shares characteristics with the person. I don’t really understand Pullman’s choice of that term to describe it; I think he could have chosen something with less negative connotations. Also, there is the concept of the ice bears, a race of talking polar bears that live in the far north. They are basically just like people, and treated as such. Talking animals is a tried and true convention of fantasy stories, but it being bears is kinda new. Also, when ice bears fight each other, the results are pretty cool.

Then there are the religious and spiritual elements and controversies of the movie. The Magisterium, which Mrs. Coulter is a part of, is a combination of a state-sponsored church and a totalitarian government. It endeavors to control every part of a person’s life, to “tell them what to do,” as Mrs. Coulter puts it. The Magisterium, even in the movie, bears a striking resemblance to the Catholic church, and some have interpreted this as a direct attack on Christianity. Pullman, who is an outspoken atheist, has said himself that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief” with these books. IMHO, it’s not a very good idea to purposefully insult a large chunk of your potential readership. On the other hand, some Christian leaders see the Magisterium as an indictment of those who would use Christianity as a form of oppression and subjugation. After all, Jesus was into letting people know the best way to live, not making them do it.

The movie itself was pretty balanced between being a fantasy epic, a personality study, an action film, and a sci-fi piece, doing each with moderate amounts of success. The first third of the film, which takes place at Jordan College and in London, is very warm and inviting, but the scenes on the sea and in the frozen north are dark, and not very well-shot. Director Chris Weitz, who previously did About a Boy, doesn’t make his film stand out from the other children’s fantasy movies of the day, and handles a vast array of characters competently. A vast array there is, but many of the characters just appear and disappear, so they’re not very well-developed. But I left the theater looking forward to the next movie, which is due out in 2009, and that’s what you want with a series.

Iconic lines:
There aren't really any that stick out. Sorry, guys.

22 Rating: 9


Stormy Pinkness said...

I gave the movie the SAME SCORE!! I agree with your analysis of the acting. As someone who has read the book and saw the movie I did not see it as an attack on Christianity, btu as attack on the oppressiveness of organized religion.

I had some problems with the differences between the book and the movie, but overall I enjoyed it!

Your Racist Friend said...

Pullman did not, for the record, attempt to cash in on the Harry Potter thing with the books. The release date of Northern Lights (UK title for The Golden Compass) predates Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stoen by two years.

Particle Man said...

aaaaaaah. that little piece of information would have been good for me to have actually researched. i guess i assumed because the first movie came out so long after the first HP book that there was a Johnny-Come-Lately thing going on.

Dr. Worm said...

I was going to make the same point as YRF, but he beat me to it. That said, as this is the InterWeb, it's always possible to go back and edit out things we wish we hadn't written. Hint hint.

Particle Man said...


Dr. Worm said...

Way to be, PM. The cynicism you describe in your first paragraph is what prevented me from enjoying Narnia at all. It looks like GC managed to rise a bit above that, anyway.