STARRING: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ian McKellen, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Dakota Blue Richards

2007, 123 Minutes, Directed by:
Chris Weitz

The alternate universe of Golden Compass is one in which good witches rule the northern skies, where talking armored ice bears are the fiercest of warriors, and where every human being is joined to an animal spirit creature.

Twelve-year-old Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) runs tame as the ward of stately Jordan College. Lyra is accompanied everywhere by her daemon Pantalaimon, a small, ever-changing animal who’s the embodiment of her spirit and her voice of reason. Lyra wants to go to the Arctic Circle with her uncle Lord Asriel, who’s investigating his radical theory that there are other worlds where people don’t have daemons. Daniel Craig stars as Lord Asriel, who is a bit like the capable and enigmatic uncle in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth. Lord Asriel has made a startling discovery that runs counter to established scientific dogma. Accompanied by his snow leopard daemon, he is exploring a rift in the structures of time and place through his experiments at the North Pole. The treacherous Mrs. Coulter, the head of the oppressive Magisterium General Oblation Board, using "Gobblers" to kidnap children for use in dangerous experiments at a lab in the frozen north, takes her away instead.

The budget for The Golden Compass was reportedly $180M, with $80M of that going to visual effects and as can be expected the effects are spectacular. The Golden Compass compares well to recent Fantasy fare such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Stardust, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Beowulf. The Golden Compass has been dubbed the anti-Narnia because of its supposed religious content, but both movies are both similar and dissimilar. For starters, both are epic snowbound children’s fantasies. The Golden Compass however boasts a better story and better visual effects.

"Better story and better visual effects than Narnia . . ."

It’s also much colder, both in it’s setting at the North Pole (actually Svalbard, Norway, a thousand miles north of Oslo), and in the performances of its actors who are mostly estranged characters. Unlike Narnia or Harry Potter, there’s little sense of family. Lyra is more of a Joan of Arc, a fiercely independent hero who follows her own vision. Unlike Beowulf she has no hubris. Lyra has no team of Vikings either, but finds help along the way.

Speaking of vision, the golden compass device itself is an oversized pocket watch that  gives visions of the truth when questions are dialed into its hands. The visual effects of being drawn into those visions are compelling. The movie could have been lost there if that hadn’t worked.

As in Stardust, the magical element that Lord Asriel is seeking in the north is the Dust. Fortunately, in The Golden Compass the Dust is really magical dust, and not Claire Danes as in Stardust. The Golden Compass however shares the charming Jules Verne look of Stardust, including Victorian flying machines. Stardust’s surprise knockout performance was Robert De Niro as the gay pirate airman. The aeronaut captain in The Golden Compass is played by the gruff Sam Elliott.

When an epic movie is about a kid, casting becomes critical. Dakota Blue Richards deserves a large portion of the credit for the success of The Golden Compass. As a first-time actor, she outperforms her A-list co-stars. She’s an instant movie star. Speaking of which, it’s interesting to compare The Golden Compass with Beowulf. Where Beowulf uses performance capture and digital actors giving video game-like performances, The Golden Compass uses real actors surrounded by rich visual effects. The nuance of performance is much better in The Golden Compass.

The Golden Compass has a great story with clever concepts like personal daemons and armored polar bears. Dakota Blue Richards is an instant movie star. However, the relationship between characters is distant and the talking bears can become mere exposition.

- Robin Rowe

A decent
if somewhat cursory adaptation of the popular children’s fantasy adventure. The acting and production values are fine, but one somehow expects more though; maybe more time spent on the plot and characters to flesh out this universe better. The story is pretty imaginative even if the film does share some visual motifs with the recent Stardust movie. Luckily none of the standard Fantasy tropes trolls, a quest, wizards in pointy hats, dwarves, etc. are rehashed and we are thus spared any Eragon 2 in the process (phew!). However, a sense of disappointment is palpable thanks to the film’s open ending. The source novel is, after all, the first in a trilogy and one almost expects “To Be Continued” to flash across the screen. In short: better than Narnia (no scenes with Santa doling out weapons to kids!), but not exactly the next Lord of the Rings . . .
James O'Ehley



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