New Line has put the studio’s future pretty much in the hands of their latest attempt to recapture their Lord of the Rings success with yet another fantasy trilogy. This time they tackle the internationally loved Philip Pullman children’s book series “His Dark Materials” and The Golden Compass is the first step. Based on the first book in the trilogy, “The Golden Compass” (titled “Northern Lights” overseas),the story details a parallel world much like our own with one major difference in that the soul of a person does not exist inside one’s body, instead they walk beside their human counterparts in animal form known as daemons.
The binding factor between these separate worlds is known as Dust, a particle-like substance that goes relatively unexplained in the film outside of knowing that the ruling authority known as the Magisterium forbids the mere mention of it. The title for the film comes from a device known as an alethiometer, better described as a truth-telling device, with hands and an appearance much like a compass. The alethiometer in the film is the last of its kind, the rest were destroyed by the Magisterium, and there is only one person that can read it, our hero, Lyra, played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards.
The set up for the film is a jumbled mish mash of otherworldly chit chat that really boils down to a simple story since it appears everything that made Pullman’s books complex and rich have been stripped from the film, primarily due to the strong stance the books take against the Catholic Church (a.k.a. The Magisterium). Instead of a deep storyline this one pretty much centers on the idea that a group known as Gobblers are snatching up little kids and taking them north, reasons unknown at first. When Lyra’s friend becomes one of the missing she holds to her promise to save him. The film moves along at a decent pace, introducing us to new characters at every turn until we finally reach the end and all fades to black and you sit there waiting for more…
The problem with The Golden Compass is not necessarily that it has removed everything I have heard that made the book series interesting, it’s that it creates this massive universe that is both interesting and wonderful, but never goes anywhere with it. Instead we have a little girl that teams up with a rag tag bunch of outsiders to take on the big bad villain in an effort to get her friend back. This would be all fine and dandy if the most impressive battle sequence didn’t happen in the middle of the film between two polar bears, followed by an ending that hits like a thud. It’s frustrating to say the least considering I liked this movie all the way through the end, but it seems like there are at least 30 more minutes of the story to be told. The credits roll and you feel as if you missed something that was never there in the first place.
As much as I disliked the ho-hum, lackluster ending there is praise to be tossed around. Dakota Blue Richards is fantastic as Lyra, and Nicole Kidman fits the part of the villainous Marisa Coulter perfectly as her pulled back, pasty face gives her character something of a despicable taste. However, the best part of the film involves the CGI animated ice bears and the voicing of the lead bear, Iorek Byrnison, by Ian McKellen. The animation done on these bears is so great, and McKellen’s voice is so perfect I think a film featuring only these bears would have been just as successful. As I mentioned above, the fight scene between two of them steals the show.
As far as the “human” characters go the best of the bunch belongs to Eva Green as she portrays a witch known as Serafina Pekkala. Not only is she strikingly beautiful, the way she speaks simply reaches out at you and forces you to listen. Unfortunately her character seems to have been lazily tossed into the production, popping in and out of scenes willy-nilly just adding to the overall confusion of the story.
The Golden Compass has lofty goals as New Line has tossed $180 million into the production alone, who knows about marketing. The studio is yet to greenlight the second and third installments on the franchise as their parent company, Time Warner, is closely watching over their shoulder. This film is meant to prove the studio still has it, and while the film is okay, it doesn’t manage to answer any of its own questions leaving viewers turned off.
I truly enjoyed watching it, but when I walked out of the theater I wanted to go read the books because I knew something was missing and this is a problem. It’s an okay thing to want to read the books to see how the trilogy ended, but to go and read the book just to get the answers to the questions the movie asks but never explains is going to leave people scratching their heads and not all that interested in a follow-up.