Title: The Golden Compass
Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Director: Chris Weitz
Screenwriters: Chris Weitz
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards
The problem is not that The Golden Compass has been stripped of its rabble-rousing anti-Christian content, though it surely has been. The problem is that the rest of it has been sterilized too. Chris Weitz’s fevered adaptation is expensive-looking, faithful to the novel in all the boring ways, and completely soulless. It mishandles the material about as badly as it can be mishandled, I think, turning the charm and wonder of Philip Pullman’s creation into a leaden, perfectly typical family blockbuster.
The fantasy world of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is doggedly unique even while paying lip service to genre archetypes. There is a much-prophesied-about chosen child, yes, and a coveted magical MacGuffin (to Pullman’s credit, the name of the trinket was not in the title of original novel, which was called Northern Lights before being renamed The Golden Compass for American consumption), but there’s also a physical representation of the soul of every human being in the form of a “daemon” animal (everyone gets a different animal, natch), parallel universes, “dust” as an elemental particle, and the “Church,” unnamed but headquartered in the Vatican, that rules the world with an iron fist. Oh, and talking polar bear royalty. Pullman somehow makes all of these elements integral to a crackerjack plot in the finest kid-accessible fantasy this side of Harry Potter.
As has been reported everywhere, the Church aspect is toned down significantly for the adaptation, but everything else is intact, at least in theory. Intact, but also weirdly dead-eyed and, against all odds, generic. This isn’t Pullman’s singular vision, it’s every fantasy film modern Hollywood has ever made — the same plastic, dully picturesque sets, the same elaborate-but-murky CGI, the same courageous ragamuffin who overcomes the odds, except that they are apparently in her favor, since she is “That Child.” Had I seen this movie first, I wouldn’t even think of picking up the books.
But how can that be? It’s the same story, right? Well, yes and no. Because, you see, Pullman’s novels spend the time to establish all of the strange and wondrous elements I’ve described in loving detail. The daemons have their own personalities, and their deep attachment to their human counterparts is palpable. The Church (here the Magisterium, a name also occasionally used in the text) is deeply frightening beyond the sight of mean-looking old folks in creepy robes conferencing in a dark room — they have total control, and an unflappable determination to keep it. Ms. Coulter, played here by Nicole Kidman, is a glorious villainess in the books, smart and unpredictable, with charm and a false warmth that can turn into steely cruelty at the drop of a hat. The cosmology — the dust, the set of other worlds — seems vast and real. And Lyra Belacqua, our scrappy young heroine, is complex, courageous, sympathetic, and alive on the page.
The film has no time to tackle most of this head on, and Weitz is too conventional a director to fill the frame with much beyond the obvious. Lyra, played by the charming Dakota Blue Richards, is brave and loyal and true and all that, but nothing special; your typical Movie Kid. Ms. Coulter isn’t any sort of beguiling presence, just a run-of-the-mill conniving villainess. The Magisterium barely shows up — a threat lurking in the background, I guess, but its depiction here doesn’t give one much of a reason to quake. The story’s most devastating moments — e.g. the fate of poor Roger, Lyra’s best friend — wind up blips on the radar, whizzing by so fast we barely notice.
Some of the big action scenes are rousing in the expected ways (people seem to be digging the climactic polar bear melee), though the best part, for my money, are the scenes in Ms. Coulter’s mansion, the only time The Golden Compass comes close to replicating the novel’s barreling momentum and suspense. It’s a pretty film, but that’s kind of part of the problem — it doesn’t just feel cursory and rushed, it feels pristine, sterile, aggressively inoffensive. The sets look like fancy toys, and the daemons are just innocuous little CGI beasties; even Ms. Coulter’s golden baboon seems basically harmless. There’s no world to enter here, except the world of mediocre tentpole blockbusters.
My affection for Pullman’s novels has probably colored my impression of the film. It’s watchable, certainly. But it has also somehow managed to turn this singular story into the unremarkable stuff of formula. Maybe Pullman, like Tolkien, needed someone like Team Peter Jackson to do his work justice. Chris Weitz’s workmanlike competence only managed to turn The Golden Compass into a glittering time-waster.