With the time, energy, and money it takes to make one of these, it seems that someone, somewhere in the echelons of Hollywood executives would bother to take the time and find out what it is that actually makes one of these films work, but if they are, they’re drawing the wrong conclusions.
Creating a new world from scratch is a tricky proposition at best that requires both stunning and well thought out production design, and copious exposition about the rules of the world and how they work. Hollywood’s generally got the first of those down pat; “The Golden Compass” does indeed have stunning production design (courtesy of frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Dennis Gassner). Almost every moment of it is achingly beautiful to look at, with sets, visual effects, and costumes all coming together to create a solid, living, breathing world.
It’s the second part where most fantasy films get tripped up, usually by throwing out large amounts of made-up words and names that have no context behind them (or not explaining it very well) and thus create no emotional connection for the audience. The hope seems to be that visuals will create all the majesty and awe the film needs and no one will pay much attention to the rough spots. But no story can work without some sort of emotion and human connection, and director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) seems to have forgotten that.
What we get instead is a constant, unending parade of exposition. Who are these characters and what do they think and feel about this world filled with witches, flying cowboys and polar bear blacksmiths, where everyone’s soul walks around next to them as a talking animal. It’s impossible to say because no one ever talks about anything except what it is they’ve got to do next, or imparting precious back story to the story’s young heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), in one instance appearing literally out of thin air to do so before quickly flying away. “The Golden Compass” doesn’t have characters; it has arbitrary plot enhancers, whose sole purpose is to continually move things forward.
If it works at all, it’s because Weitz has assembled a stellar cast, from plucky newcomer Richards to Daniel Craig, who wastes not a second of his small screen time as her scientist uncle, and Nicole Kidman as the icy villainess, Mrs. Coulter, doing an impressive job representing the face of oppressive, unfeeling bureaucracy everywhere. Even the voices of the daemons have been perfectly chosen, even though most only have a few lines of dialogue. The only wrong note, hard as it seems to believe, is Ian McKellen as the warrior bear Iorik. McKellen has made his recent film career out of doing his best in even the silliest of films, instilling them with a gravitas they may not have earned, but for the first time he seems to be phoning it in. Compared to Ian McShane, as the voice of his rival, Ragnar, there is nothing believable in anything in says it just doesn’t fit.
It doesn’t help that the dialogue is generally extremely flat and boring, with only Blue and Kidman getting anything close to introspection to sink their teeth into. Everyone is too concerned with the doing of things, and talking vaguely about it at that, this thing that must be done and that person that must be caught. But why, and what do they feel about the situation? We’re left eternally in the dark.
“The Golden Compass” isn’t a failure or even particularly bad, it’s cast is too good and it’s too well designed for all hope to be lost, but something fundamental to good storytelling heart has been lost in the process, leaving a final product as icy and impossible to really care for as Mrs. Coulter herself.