Review: The Golden Compass, Drunken Bears and Religious Commentary

Even without having read the fantasy novel on which The Golden Compass is based, I can tell that the movie has drastically eliminated a lot of its material. The book presumably makes sense, whereas the movie is rushed and slapdash. I frequently had to ask myself, "What are the heroes trying to accomplish?" And I am a grown-up who watches movies for a living! I can only imagine how befuddled kids will be.

My the special effects sure are fantastic, though! There are armored alcoholic polar bears galloping across the tundra, none of it real but all of it pretty darn convincing. There are smaller animals everywhere, all computer-generated and realistic (except, strangely, for a puppy -- for which they could have just used, you know, a real puppy). You can often be caught up in the magic of the movie and swept along with its story -- until you remember that, oh yeah, you don't really know what's going on.

Basically, it's like this. Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is a young orphan girl who lives in a parallel world where people's souls dwell not inside of them but in the form of animals that accompany them. They're called daemons (which is the archaic spelling of "demons"). Your daemon might be a dog, or a monkey, or a bird, or whatever. I guess you wouldn't have a fish for a daemon, because then you'd have to carry your soul around in a bowl. If you get hurt, your daemon feels it too, and vice versa.

Anyway, the rulers of this world have outlawed certain kinds of knowledge, including all talk of "dust," i.e., the magical kind that was once a way for humans to commune with other worlds. The Magisterium (as the ruling party is known) also got rid of all the golden compasses, which were also used to ... um ... learn ... stuff.

But there is still one golden compass, and Lyra is (probably) the long-prophesied girl who can read it! She gets whisked away by the tall, icily beautiful Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who says she needs an apprentice on an expedition, but who's really in with the Magisterium. Lyra escapes her clutches and gets help from an American-style cowboy named Scoresby (Sam Elliott -- love him!) and an exiled polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen).

Help with what, you ask? Well, Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), has gone into the north country to try to make contact with another world, and Lyra wanted to go after him. I think. No, wait! Boogeymen called gobblers have been abducting children, and Lyra wants to find them because a couple of her friends were among those taken.

Also, there are witches.

The film was adapted and directed by Chris Weitz, who previously adapted and directed About a Boy. You might think a task like this would be overwhelming, given his background, and I'd say you were right. Weitz has the narrative leaping around frantically, managing to set up some interesting sequences -- the polar bear fight is pretty thrilling -- but not much ongoing momentum.

Even with no prior knowledge of the story, you can tell where material has been removed or oversimplified. When Lyra first goes off with Mrs. Coulter to her fine house, about 10 seconds pass before Lyra is talking about how she's been there for "weeks," and there are all of these "rooms we're not allowed in." But that's the first we've heard of it. The film gives no indication that any time has passed -- and that's a movie-making mistake, not a story-structure one.

Contrary to the email that was forwarded to you by the ladies at church, the film is not blatantly anti-religion or anti-God. There are certainly parallels that can be drawn between the iron-fisted Magisterium and, say, the Catholic Church, especially since "magisterium" is a real word that means "the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church." But who knows that? The paranoid, free-will-crushing Magisterium reminded me more of the many fascist governments I've seen in other movies, and our heroes' attempts to fight against it are no more fraught with anti-religion symbolism than any other kids film about young people fighting authority (i.e., most kids films). It's certainly not going to make impressionable young viewers question their religious faith. They'll be too busy trying to figure out what's going on.

Grade: C+

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Eric D. Snider's daemon is a blue whale. Terribly inconvenient.