Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, and Dakota Blue Richards in The Golden Compass (2007)


(director/writer: Chris Weitz; screenwriter: based on the first novel of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman; cinematographer: Henry Braham; editor: Peter Honess/Anne V. Coates/Kevin Tent; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: Nicole Kidman (Mrs. Coulter), Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Christopher Lee (First High Councilor), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary), Ben Walker (Roger), , Charlie Rowe (Billy Costa), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Jim Carter (Lord John Faa), Clare Higgins (Ma Costa), Jack Shepherd (Master of Jordan College), Magda Szubanski (Mrs. Lonsdale) — WITH THE VOICES OF: Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson, bear king), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon), Kathy Bates (Hester), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Deborah A. Forte/Bill Carraro; New Line Cinema; 2007-USA/UK)

“Makes bland with the subversive mythological and religious subject matter so much so that it makes its romp through alternate universes story hardly anything that’s provocative or exciting.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director-writer Chris Weitz’s (“About a Boy”) flashy CGI but innocuous adaptation of the first installment of author Philip Pullman’s 1995 best-selling fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials” (published in Britain as “Northern Lights”), that has a reportedly 180 million dollar budget, makes bland with the subversive mythological and religious subject matter so much so that it makes its romp through alternate universes story hardly anything that’s provocative or exciting, but only something that is dutifully done by following the letter of the book but not getting all of the spirit. Besides being overlong and incomplete, it’s so rushed that it doesn’t give the viewer adequate time to come to grips with a number of terms that are basic to the film. Also, the classic good-vs.-evil tale is weighed down with an undemanding one-sided argument about the right for the individual to have free-will that is way too obvious to be debatable. The opposing side of the argument, not to have freedom, is so moronic a concept that it could appeal only to a dictator or someone with a lobotomy (though The Catholic League found the book anti-Catholic, I don’t see how they could have the same take on this moderate film, especially, since the word “church” from the book’s relentless attack on dogmatism has been deleted–If they did, they’ve got big problems).

Before we get into this film, we must absorb that there are parallel worlds and a metaphysical connection to everything called Dust–something that gives off free will. Also that a person’s soul lives outside their body in the form of an ever-changing animal–which is called a “daemon.”

A feisty 12-year-old orphan tomboy, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards, newcomer), grows up as the ward of the “Scholars” of the esteemed Jordan University (part of Oxford University) thanks to her explorer uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Lyra is accompanied everywhere by her daemon Pantalaimon, who takes the form sometimes of a ferret, mouse, fox, or cat. Lord Asriel, whose daemon is a snow leopard, has just returned from the Arctic Circle with evidence that Dust really exists and hopes to raise money for another expedition to prove other worlds exist where people don’t have daemons. The Magisterium, approved by Jordan’s faculty, is an oppressive religious authority that wishes to permanently ban independent thought and imperiously dictates the right way for people to think. It opposes the new expedition and murder is not out of the question as to how far it’s willing to go in its opposition, as it’s afraid Dust will spark rebellious thought and the new ideas will make them obsolete. But the university funds Lord Asriel despite his radical theory going against the grain of dogmatic thought prevalent at the time, and he departs without Lyra–who had begged to go along but is told Dust doesn’t concern her. The university head (Jack Shepherd) gives Lyra, for an upcoming journey, the “golden compass,” a mysterious device officially called an alethiometer (the only one left in the world), that looks like an oversized pocket watch. It’s used to divine the truth for anyone who knows how to understand the hidden meanings behind the combinations of symbols it spins to. The headmaster tells Lyra not to tell a soul that she possesses it. The Magisterium leader (Derek Jacobi) assigns the “Church’s” sexy emissary, dressed in a shimmering evening gown of liquid gold, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who has a golden monkey daemon, to kidnap Lyra after befriending her by telling the eager to travel youngster she will take her to the north but instead takes her to London. The treacherous Coulter uses shadowy creatures called “Gobblers” to kidnap children for use in dangerous perverse experiments at a secret experimental lab in the frozen north, and Lyra manages to escape while her best friend Roger (Ben Walker), the cook’s son, and her other friend, a son of the Gyptians, Billy Costa (Charlie Rowe), are snatched. Lyra promises to rescue them and heads to the north country, and is helped by the seafaring wandering Gyptians; a beautiful and fiery queen of the witches of Lake Enara, Serafina (Eva Green); a gruff cowboy “aeronaut” Lee Scoursby (Sam Elliott), with a tawny rabbit for a daemon (the voice of Kathy Bates); and a fighting and talking armored polar bear with royal blood called Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen). In the process of the rescue, Lyra learns some precious secrets about her family, we get to watch a fight-to-death match between two polar bears (the disgraced Iorek and the bear king Ragnar) and the cliff-hanger optimistically leaves off for the next installment with Lyra on her way to rescue Lord Asriel trapped somewhere in the north country; it also gives voice for free-thinkers and those who use their conscience as a guide (which is supposedly how Lyra gets the golden compass to work only for her).

I had no problem with the anti-organized religion theme, the cheesy special effects that were nevertheless spectacular (at least the film got a bang out of the dollars spent) and was more than pleased with the talented ensemble cast who did an admirable job (especially Dakota’s gritty performance), but somehow I couldn’t feel the magic in a film that was supposed to be all about the magic. It might have been imaginative on the written page (I never read the 400+ page book), but on the screen it fizzled and never left me gasping for more.