The Golden Compass
"That's some pretty fast work, Miss Lyra." So says an impressed Texan aeronaut to a young English girl after she befriends a depressed talking polar bear, inspires the bear to strike back against some church-based bad guys, and persuades the bear to join her on a quest—all, seemingly, in a matter of minutes. But the aeronaut could just as easily be talking about The Golden Compass, the film in which all these characters appear.
In an age when big-budget movies based on British fantasies tend to run a little long—the first Narnia movie and most of the Harry Potter films run about two and a half hours, and each of the Lord of the Rings films famously clocked in at more than three—this new film, based on the first book of Philip Pullman's sprawling, controversial His Dark Materials trilogy, manages to wrap things up in less than two hours, and it feels rather rushed as a result.
There is spectacle aplenty here, to be sure. Fans of the book—including those who disagree with the trilogy's anti-religious thrust but enjoy Pullman's obvious skills as a writer—will find much to enjoy. For the most part, the actors are perfectly cast in their roles, and the special effects are dazzlingly complex and rendered with just the right, casual touch, especially where the talking animals are concerned.
Some of the talking animals, namely the polar bears, are just that: animals that talk. But many of them are "daemons," or external manifestations of a human being's soul. In the parallel universe where The Golden Compass takes place, every person has a daemon, and the daemons of children are constantly shifting shape, from one animal to another; but when these children hit puberty, their daemons settle into one character-defining form for the rest of their lives. (The servants tend to have daemons shaped like dogs, while the villains tend to have daemons shaped like insects and reptiles.)
Against all odds, the film succeeds in creating an environment where the appearance of these animals everywhere is taken for granted, and where the constant shape-shifting by the younger ones seems perfectly natural. But the film is so busy zipping from one plot point to the next that you never quite develop a feel for the relationship that exists between any individual human and his or her daemon. The film gets the mechanics of human-daemon relationships right, but, ironically, it doesn't quite get the soul.
The movie's accelerated pace gives short shrift to many other story elements, too.
The story revolves around Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a pre-teen who has been raised as an orphan in an Oxford college under the sponsorship of her "uncle," an adventurous scientist named Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Shortly after the film begins, Lyra is taken under the wing of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful but, we soon discover, cruel agent of the Magisterium, the church-like organization that dominates their world. (Lord Asriel's daemon is a snow leopard; Mrs. Coulter's, a golden monkey that looks kind of glamorous but isn't afraid to use its claws.)