The Golden Compass

Review By: Michael Dance

I haven't read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, of which The Golden Compass is the first book, although thanks to the recent controversy surrounding the film I know my fair share about it. Christian groups have accused Pullman's saga of being anti-religious, and especially anti-Catholic, and have called for a boycott of the film.

New Line Cinema, fearful of the ramifications this will have on the box office, have pointed out for months that the film version of The Golden Compass doesn't include any of the novel's more explicit anti-religious sentiments. But that hasn't been enough: the Catholic League, in their call for a boycott, says that "the film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present."

Let's get one thing straight: the movie was not made to "trick" anyone into buying the books and suddenly becoming an atheist. Like all movies, it was made to make money. New Line Cinema is a business, and they're trying to turn His Dark Materials into the next Lord of the Rings – that's their only motive.

Then again, let's hold on a moment before we judge this as yet another case of crazy intolerant Christians overreacting. No matter how Pullman is trying to spin his story to help the release of the film, he has said, point-blank: "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief." And in the final book of his trilogy, The Amber Spyglass "” spoiler alert "” the main characters quite literally kill God, who is personified as a frail impostor who never actually created the world but had taken credit for it.

Pullman, obviously, can write whatever he wants, but Christians are fully entitled to complain about it just as much as atheists are entitled to complain about Christians. My own belief is that Pullman is too careless in condemning the beliefs themselves when his real target seems to be the institutions, but he also seems to be a good storyteller, and as I haven't actually read the books, I'll leave it at that.

Perhaps the reason I'm spending so much time on the controversy is that I find it more compelling than the film, which in and of itself is quite sanitary and uncontroversial. But if for some weird reason you came here to actually read a review, here it is. The Golden Compass is solid and professional entertainment, but it does feel very much like one-third of a story. This worked for The Fellowship of the Ring, of course, but The Golden Compass runs barely over an hour and a half, which makes it fairly hard for the film to muster up any kind of epic sweep.

We're introduced to the world with a voice over that's too brief to be helpful and thus is unnecessary altogether; something about alternate universes and how Dust "” different than the normal kind "” weaves them all together. The alternate universe the story is set in looks a lot like ours, and even has a place called Oxford, but is cheerfully anachronistic "” the city looks vaguely futuristic, but people dress like they're in the early 1900s "” and magical. Witches roam the skies in some areas, and if you go far enough north you can meet the talking polar bears.

The screenplay is a bit clunky, hitting each major plot point dutifully and briskly without much time to appreciate each setting. Our hero, Lyra "” who is often forced to talk in paragraphs but is otherwise well played by Dakota Blue Richards – travels everywhere from a sinister mansion to dangerous city streets to a pirate ship to the land of the polar bears, but there's really not a whole lot of time to simply enjoy the ride or develop a sense of wonder, because before you know it, you're onto the next thing. I understand the need for a steady pace, but there's equally something to be said for stopping and smelling the roses every once in a while.

Yet don't get me wrong "” there's fun to be had, too. The plot itself follows Lyra and her daemon "” basically an extension of one's soul masquerading as a talking animal that constantly accompanies you "” as they go live with the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) after Lyra's uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) journeys up north as part of his studies of Dust and alternate universes.

Lord Asriel's research is condemned by the Magisterium, a.k.a a more powerful and corrupt version of the Catholic Church, and when Lyra realizes that Mrs. Coulter is actually in league with the Magisterium and Lord Asriel is in danger, she runs away up north to find him "” in the process gaining more than a few allies and uncovering a conspiracy involving kidnapped children.

Despite the film feeling like a Cliff's Notes version of a larger story, it's clearly a solid plot and there are plenty of colorful characters; a lot of the fun derives from the world feeling like a lot of different fantasy styles thrown together. There are traditional witches, like the perfectly-cast Eva Green. Then there's Sam Elliott's aeronaut, who has a thick Texan accent and gives Lyra a ride in his hot-air balloon that has a gondola shaped like a souped-up boat. Then there's the arctic facility the kidnapped children are kept in, which looks like something out of Lost.

Craig is really only in the movie for the better part of two scenes, but Kidman clearly relishes her villainous role and is a lot of fun to watch. There's plenty of voice-over work also: Freddie Highmore plays Lyra's daemon, while Ian McKellen makes the strongest impression as the polar bear Iorek Byrnison. His climactic fight with the evil bear Ragnar (Ian McShane) is staged like a WWF match, but is kind of awesome nonetheless.

The lively performances make up for some filmmaking dullness; director Chris Weitz had actually dropped out of the film at one point, fearing that the movie was too big in scale for him, but returned after his replacement had "creative differences" with New Line. As a result, he plays things very safe, sometimes at the expense of excitement; the facility of kidnapped children, for example, could've felt really terrifyingly in the right hands.

I think overall the film succeeds. For all its imperfections, it entertains, and the lack of much of a sweeping narrative might be rectified if its sequels are made as planned and we can watch the saga in its entirety "” that is, if the rest of the saga is as good and any personal agenda of the author doesn't overshadow an otherwise solid minor fantasy story.

Movie Grade: B


The Golden Compass is an exciting fantasy adventure, set in a parallel world where people´s souls manifest themselves as small animals, talking bears fight wars and children are mysteriously disapperaring. At the center of the story is a 12-year-old girl, Lyra, who sets out to find and rescue her best friend, Roger, and ends up on an extraordinary quest to save not only her own world, but ours as well.

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"I don't think you're dumb... I just think at times you're under-exposed to information." -Murphy Brown