The Golden Compass
Starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig
Directed by Chris Weitz
If you pay attention regularly either to entertainment headlines or to Who's Outraged Today news, you're probably aware that some religious groups have worked themselves into a lather over The Golden Compass.
Armed with the knowledge that author Philip Pullman — on whose His Dark Materials trilogy Compass is based — is an avowed atheist, the Catholic League and others have sounded the alarm that the big-screen fantasy targeting younger audiences could be a gateway drug to abandoning faith.
Won't someone please think of the children?!
It turns out no one really needed to be quite so concerned. It's true The Golden Compass, while not necessarily anti-God, is clearly anti-institutional religion. Pullman would have delighted in inspiring questions of dogma. But this film may ultimately work on exactly the opposite level. Somehow, The Golden Compass manages to make heterodoxy as boring as ass.
Fans of Pullman's novels will insist this must be a result of something being lost in translation, but that's not necessarily the case. Pullman mined familiar Joseph Campbell Ur-myth territory to create his heroine, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old orphan living in an alternate universe where humans' souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animal-shaped companions called daemons.
Like any good mythological heroine, Lyra is destined for an identity-defining quest, this one inspired by the heretical investigations of her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), the serial kidnappings of young children, and Lyra's coming into possession of the titular device, the mysterious truth-telling alethiometer. From her home in London, Lyra travels north — first with the glamorous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and eventually with a group of "gyptians" (gypsies) eager to find their own lost children.
Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and his production team do a fine enough job of bringing Pullman's alternate London to life. Futuristic spires mix with a vaguely Victorian atmosphere, the transportation a blend of dirigibles and gyroscope-driven carriages. A fantasy set in a world intended to be much like our own presents a unique challenge, but The Golden Compass looks distinctive without straining too hard.
Unfortunately, no one seemed to strain too hard to make the film compelling. Lyra herself, while clearly intended to be a spunky sort with a yen for adventure, never really develops a distinct personality, nor does newcomer Richards leap off the screen with charismatic presence. She's surrounded by characters who similarly fill pre-assigned roles without ever coming to life.
Such colorless characterizations would have been hard enough to overcome, but The Golden Compass truly falls flat thanks to its pacing. Unlike many would-be fantasy epics, it's not because it overstays its welcome. Instead, Weitz chops the story into too many bite-sized chunks, the 114-minute running time never allowing the narrative to develop any texture or sense of consequence.
As for the subtext, indeed, it's none-too-subtle. While the controlling entity may not be identified specifically as a church, the film version of The Golden Compass even more baldly presents an allegorical framework wherein adult knowledge is equated with original sin, and scientific challenges to orthodox belief are deemed a threat. But for such a notion to work its nefarious powers on impressionable minds, they'll need to be engaged enough to pay attention. The menagerie of daemons flitting through the margins can't give The Golden Compass any soul — and there's no need to fear for the soul of anyone who's dozing off in the seat next to you.