Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass, the first film to be made from Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy of fantasy books, feels a lot like that first "Harry Potter" film. A frightened Chris Columbus had a ridiculous amount of hype and expectation to live up to, so he carefully made sure to include as much material from the novel as humanly possible. Tell the story in exactly the same way, so as not to offend the die-hards.

It makes sense if you're adapting a juggernaut like Sorcerer's Stone, but I'm not sure Chris Weitz had to take the same tack with Pullman's books. Sure, these stories have many, many devoted fans. They're very good fantasy books - they're going to have devoted fan followings. But if the entire point is to open these stories up to a mass audience, greater liberties can be taken.

The frenzied pace kicks in immediately. We meet Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a presumed orphan living under the care of the faculty of Jordan College, and almost immediately, she's on the move. Even though several of her schoolyard chums will become important later on in the film, we get to know them in a flash, during a chase scene, no less. I understand that this follows roughly the plotline of the novel's first chapter, but that's a book. A single chapter's worth of prose can obviously give us more information and insight into these kids and their world than 4 minutes of action-oriented screen time.

Lyra's mysterious Uncle, the esteemed scholar Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), has shown up and announced, controversially, that the universe is held together by dust, and that by manipulating this dust, he can visit parallel universes. He also gives Lyra a magical Golden Compass (otherwise known as an alethiometer), made with this crazy universe dust, that can answer any question truthfully provided you can understand its symbol code.

All of this flies in the face of the Doctrines of the Magisterium, a brutal authority-religion run by severe British actors Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee. (Their Evil Staff Meeting is one of the film's best scenes, far more in line with the tone of the books than the surrounding material. Also, "Evil Staff Meeting" would be a great name for a short film, and I intend to start writing such a project immediately.)

So the Magisterium send one of their agents, Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman, in To Die For perky-evil mode) to get Lyra and the alethiometer. This, of course, is really just the prelude to the real story, which involves witches and armored bears and kidnapped Gyptian children and spirit-animals that follow you around and offer advice called daemons. Seriously...it's a cool book...

Unwisely, Weitz (who directed and wrote the screenplay, and whose past credits include and About a Boy and American Pie) tries to fit this entire novel's worth of characters and incidents into 2 hours. It's barely possible. So, as a consequence, the whole film feels rushed. (I can't imagine everyone involved didn't know this.)

We can't slow down to take in anything about this alternate reality universe because we've got to hustle to the next location and meet the next amazing new species. The film's not difficult to follow, as the storytelling's still quite linear, but it's too busy to build any real momentum. We don't grow to care about anyone or anything because we only have a few quick moments to get to know them.

Take the witches (please!) They come in so late in the story that Weitz has essentially run out of time. We need a big climax, and pronto. So one witch (Eva Green) floats down to visit Lyra, deliver some much-needed exposition, then flies away, to return briefly during a battle scene and then hang around at the end as if she's earned Main Character status. Who the hell are these witches? What do they care about the kidnapped children and the bears? It would be as if the elves in Lord of the Rings just showed up at the final battle in Return of the King. "Oh, hey, there's elves in Middle Earth, too! Did you see those talking trees? They're weird. Okay, let's go kill these guys!"

Sam Elliott, playing the friendly pilot who helps Lyra along her way, gets a few intensely difficult scenes to play, essentially explaining a portion of the movie to the protagonist. "Oh, hey there, little girl. Why, did you know everything you needed to know about this strange new location in which you've arrived? Shucks, you've come to the right place."

It's too bad, really, because these are good actors and you can tell they're ready to give these parts their all, but they get no time in which to establish anything but cartoon personalities. (Which is okay for Ian McKellan, who's voicing a cartoon bear.)

Dakota Blue Richards is really terrific as Lyra; some of the best scenes in the film are the early ones in which she established the young girl's headstrong, adventurous spirit. She's stubborn and, of course, brave but not precocious, though there's a slyness to her expression at times that exceeds her years. She even manages to build a reasonably believable relationship with a CG-animated bear voiced by Ian McKellan. Yet she becomes little more than a prop when all is said and done, bounced around by this tropical storm of a screenplay until she winds up floating off into the middle-distance, talking excitedly about the events we will see in the next thrilling episode.

Weitz has kept all the incident, but radically changed the tone. What is a fairly dark novel has become much lighter fare, more upbeat and humorous, which is fine. (The rating, I would guess, is for one shot of bear-related violence, and it's actually pretty unnecessary.) You can't expect this kind of big-budget holiday family fantasy film to retain all the dark edges of a weird Englishman's fiction. But if he was willing to shift the books to this degree, to turn a frequently intense, occasionally estoric series of atheist-themed novels into a mainstream, gingerly anti-authoritarian film franchise...why not trim some of the plot so you can actually make it into a real movie? A more cinematic flair, some time to let situations develop and establish relationships, would have done amazing things for this movie. As it stands, it's a decent entertainment, better than Narnia but not by enough.

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