We gave Judge Kerry Birmingham a golden compass once. It was really just a yellow yo-yo, but it kept him busy while the grown-ups were talking. He's a very special boy, you see.
There are worlds beyond our own—the compass will show the way.
It was long road to the multiplexes for The Golden Compass, based on the first book of English author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. A worldwide hit with young audiences who thrilled to a crafty young girl's adventures in a fantasy world just a step removed from our own, a movie version seemed inevitable, especially in the wake of Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings becoming such hits based on similar pedigrees. There was little to suggest another successful franchise wasn't in the offing.
Times, however, change. Identical-looking movies like The Seeker and Bridge to Terabithia and a slew of imitators all aped the look, feel, and marketing of its Potter/Narnia/Rings forebears to little enthusiasm and diminishing returns. Writer-director Chris Weitz, responsible for introducing pie sex into popular culture and mining more personal, indie-centric veins since, was brought in as a dubious choice to helm the film, only to leave the project and be brought back at the last minute to replace his replacement. Religious groups, apparently not noticing that the book had been out for a decade or so before, condemned Pullman's atheism and decried the The Golden Compass for its use of The Magisterium as an alleged vehicle for anti-religious sentiment.
It's a lot for any production to go through. What resulted wasn't the Lord of the Rings-esque phenomenon New Line Cinema was fishing for (indeed, they went out of their way to invoke it in Compass's teaser trailer), but it was not the disaster doomsayed by the book's pissy, proprietary fans or the hair-trigger zealots who had bolstered Narnia's receipts.
Facts of the Case
In alternate version of our world, people's souls live outside of their bodies in the form of animal companions called "daemons," and daily life is controlled by a pseudo-religious authoritarian group known as The Magisterium. Young orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives at London's esteemed Jordan College, where her erstwhile Uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig, James Bond himself) has returned to seek funding for an expedition to the Arctic to investigate the appearance of Dust, otherworldly energy that is seeping into their world from other dimensions. The Magisterium and its figurehead, the glamorous and dangerous Ms. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, Birth), have an interest in keeping the mysteries of Dust secret, and attempt to prevent Asriel from finding out the truth. Into all this is thrust Lyra, who finds herself one of the few people able to use the alethiometer, the titular golden compass, a device that allows its user to divine the truth. Lyra is pulled into a plot that involves the sinister underpinnings of The Magisterium, mass kidnappings, zephyr-piloting cowboys, and talking bears in armor.
To address the elephant in the room up front: There's nothing in The Golden Compass itself to suggest it's anti-religion; The Magisterium does have stuffy Papal trappings for those inclined to look, but otherwise The Magisterium is little more than the Empire with a lissome, blonde Nicole Kidman instead of Darth Vader. Whatever Pullman's beliefs, none of that interferes with or overrides the story being told, at least the story as adapted by Weitz. As a matter of personal preference, a belief in God doesn't automatically presume a moral high ground, just as the lack of those beliefs doesn't imply nihilism or some insidious propagation thereof. This is ultimately an entertainment for kids: a relatively complex and sophisticated entertainment, but in the end it's only that. Its message, like the best children's literature, is a basic humanism, the notion that people maybe oughtn't do terrible things to each other, which is a message that one doesn't have to be even remotely religious to go along with. In the interest of not belaboring this point any further, let it be said that only the most strident of parents will find the ideas bandied about here objectionable; any other audience will and should take The Golden Compass on its own terms.
All that said, divorced from its many controversies and the reputation of the source material, this is not the strongest possible movie. The hardest thing to sell about The Golden Compass might be right there in the "Facts of the Case": souls are animals? What is "Dust" again, exactly? An a-leeth-ee-what? Wait: why would a bear need armor?
Adaptation is the problem. Straight filmic adaptations of novels are nearly impossible to pull off, especially in cases like this where the setting is so integral to the proceedings that there is simply little room to contain it in two hours or so of dialogue, exposition, special effects, and production design. This is the Dune problem: how do you tell your story when so much of it is tied into esoteric backstory and vaguely realized metaphysics? Weitz, directing his own adaptation of Pullman's novel, wrestles with necessarily compressing the needed information to its bare-bones minimum to propel the plot while attempting to make the movie complete unto itself. How do you reconcile things like plot and character when you have to pay so much attention to the Victoriana steampunk trappings and the logic of a world of tangible souls and everyday magic treated like wallpaper? The bulk of the film's problems can be pinpointed here: in the rush of information and the whirl of peculiar concepts, sacrifices must be made, and more often than not clarity and depth lose that fight.
All of which must be crucially balanced in a fantasy. It's not enough to have characters with names like "Lord Asriel" and "Lyra Belacqua" and wisecracking ferrets: a potpourri of quirks and incongruities do not a cohesive fantasy world make. While there is a certain breathlessness to Lyra racing across the tundra on the back of a polar bear, it's how it all fits together that makes it work. Weitz tries, and it often comes together in beautiful ways, but the moments where everything moves in synchrony are sporadic.
All of this amounts to a movie that works, just not one that works as well as it could have. Weitz and crew do make a game go of it. It's visually on a par with its recent fantasy counterparts, right down to picturesque vistas and digital chicanery, though in its efforts to live up to the standards of, say, Narnia, it often winds up looking indistinguishable from the pack it's trying to break away from. It's a lavish and impressive production, even if the most realistic digital fur rendering program in the world doesn't ever convince you that Ragnar Surlusson, King of the Panserbjorne, is anything more than one of those Coca-Cola polar bears with the voice of that guy from Deadwood.
The real find of the film is Richards, whose debut is more auspicious than the film itself. Plucked from obscurity to play Lyra, Richards is called upon to play the film's heroine, a habitual liar and general pest, somehow still sympathetic and innocent. It works, and her inexperience is overshadowed by her naturalistic and expressive acting. She's surrounded by some world-class actors: in addition to seemingly half the cast of Casino Royale (besides Craig, Eva Green plays a hot witch with the fantasy-novel name of "Serafina Pekkala;" they have no scenes together), Richards shares the screen with Kidman, Sam Elliott (The Incredible Hulk), and a host of respected English stage actors, all of whom treat the material with gravity even when it requires them to, say, harangue a drunk polar bear (Oscar nominee Tom Courtenay does the haranguing, ladies and gentlemen). This lateral dedication to the material saves it: everyone involved is committed to the material, even if the end result isn't quite what everyone wanted. This may explain many of the lukewarm reactions to the film-if something's been sufficiently homogenized, it's then lost that spark that made it appealing in the first place. The ending is left wide open (and differs considerably from the book), a story choice left optimistically open for sequels. If the same creators tackle the sequel books but retain the depth and bite now that all the initial hurdles of exposition and expectation are out of the way, they may finally have a movie that can be recommended without reservation, controversy be damned.
The bulk of the special features are on the second disc; those purchasing the single-disc edition get only Weitz's commentary, at turns anecdotal, technical, and self-deprecating. Weitz seems acutely aware of the novel's long journey to the screen and talks around most or all of the controversies, hesitantly alluding to the changes and dilutions made to The Magisterium in the film ("…Not to get too political about it," he says, as close to a direct reference to the film's religious controversies as we get anywhere in the DVD set). Old hand Ian McKellen (X-Men), brought in by the studio to re-voice armored bear Iorek after rejecting Weitz's choice of performer, is about the only actor who isn't praised up and down by the director; his silence says volumes about the compromises and diplomacy required for Weitz to get the film made. Though breezy and informative, Weitz is pretty clearly traumatized by the rigors of making this movie: he's so on edge about potential outrage that he instantly backtracks when describing Craig's arctic pursuers, the Samoyed people, as functioning "like Indians in Westerns," instantly apologizing and suggesting "Native Americans."
As I'm often compelled to remember as a reviewer, Making movies is hard. This is a fact on the most low-key of indie sets and doesn't get easier with a few hundred million dollars to spare; it only makes the impossible achievable. Like previous making-ofs of big screen epics like Star Wars's prequel trilogy and, yes, The Lord of the Rings, the lengthy, exhaustive behind-the-scenes documentary that comprises The Golden Compass's second disc amply demonstrates the sheer amount of work that goes into a production, let alone one of this size, scope, and profile. Viewable as eleven separate featurettes or as one massive documentary clocking in at just under three hours, this making-of piece progresses chronologically through pre-production, production, post-production, and release. "The Novel" and "The Adaptation" focus on Pullman and Weitz, respectively; Pullman comes across as an affable, old-fashioned Englishman who is tickled just to see his book come to film, and Weitz seems likeable but overwhelmed even as he becomes part of the movie's directorial shuffle. "Finding Lyra Belacqua" details the extensive open casting call across Britain that ultimately netted Richards as the lead, bookended nicely with the final "The Launch: Releasing the Film" featurette. The remaining featurettes cover practical aspects of production, with "Music" discussing Alexandre Desplat's score and "Oxford" detailing a key location. "Armoured Bears" is on the CG effects-heavy Iorek-Ragnar fight, while "Daemons" and "The Alethiometer" show those key props from conception to fabrication. Much time is spent on "Costumes" and "Production Design," justifiably given the lushness and detail of those aspects of the movie (and, really, the movie's greatest strength). Most featurettes include accompanying image galleries that can be viewed from a separate menu or following each segment, some of which are rather interesting (who knew all those pictures on the alethiometer actually had meanings and correspondences?). Finally, the film's three trailers round out the extras.
As one might expect from a recent, big-budget production and an appropriately lavish DVD set to accompany it, sound and picture quality are excellent, with little to no discernible loss in the transfer and a sound mix that emphasizes the score, which sounds fantastic in 5.1. The quality isn't quite Lord of the Rings, but then that statement could be applied to the movie as a whole.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If nothing else, The Golden Compass is a victim of expectations and circumstance, a child of the famously inept studio system and the vagaries of modern filmmaking. There's a lot to admire here, as a rousing adventure story, a richly detailed fantasy world, and a fable of defiance and friendship. Expecting to have the cachet of The Lord of the Rings and the appeal to children of Narnia and Harry Potter was always a pipe dream of New Line's marketing department and in no way reflects the film as it exists. This is a competently mounted, frequently beautiful movie, and its many missteps don't diminish that it is a worthy adaptation of its much-revered source material.
Though far from a perfect adaptation, The Golden Compass is still a generally strong film, neither the boycott-ready bomb anticipated by its detractors nor the ideal big-screen fantasia of the book's fans. Sometimes big ideas lose something in translation despite the best efforts of the craftsmen involved, and that's the case here. Doubtless a much longer "Director's Cut" is already in the offing, but this 2-disc edition is still loaded for bear, and fans of the material or of this particular brand of sweeping children's fantasy should find plenty to like (parents of younger kids should take note that the Iorek-Ragnar fight gets particularly intense, with the fight's ending earning that PG-13).
I will hesitantly rule that The Golden Compass is not guilty, though there is much compelling evidence as to its guilt. It is the court's belief that this is a decent movie that turned out as well as it did despite a difficult maturation process and a hostile environment. The filmmakers are free to pursue sequels should they and their financial backers choose to; however, they should be warned that the court will brook no more watering down of the material and will require more unity of vision-God as my witness.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary with Writer/Director Chris Weitz
Review content copyright © 2008 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.