Does the cineplex really need another fantasy trilogy? The imaginary universe is getting so crowded these days it's hard not to suffer from epic fantasy fatigue. How much you'll enjoy The Golden Compass, the latest in a long line of magical otherworldly adventures, depends upon your craving to see armored polar bears duke it out ... and your patience to witness their onscreen arrival.
Until then (about an hour into the film), Chris Weitz's (About A Boy, American Pie) adaptation of the Philip Pullman novel Christian fundamentalists love to hate is crammed with the prerequisite lavish special effects, byzantine plotting, a cast of British thespians and strange-sounding names that grace such contemporaries as Narnia, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
It's not the acclaimed novelist's fault; his richly created universe and its allegorical underpinnings are still worth their weight in wood pulp. It's just that the other films cast such long shadows that anthropomorphic CGI creations in semi-Bavarian settings have lost their luster.
Of course, it doesn't help that Weitz's direction is ill-matched for the material and his exposition-laden script has defanged much of Pullman's subtext — the struggle between religious fanaticism and free will.
Set in a parallel universe, spunky newcomer Dakota Blue Richards plays Lyra Belacqua, a 12-year-old orphan raised by her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), an Oxfordian scientist and explorer. Obsessed with the magical dust that connects all universes, Asriel has attracted the attention (and wrath) of the Magisterium, a quasi-fascist government that looks and acts like the Catholic Church. When he impulsively takes off for the North Pole, Lyra is left vulnerable to the slinky Mrs. Coulter (the icy Nicole Kidman), and her freaky ape-like familiar. You see, in this world, an individual's soul takes the form of an animal companion (known as daemons) and Coulter and the Magisterium have been abducting children and conducting experiments in order to separate them from their alter-ego pets.
What Coulter doesn't know, however, is that Lyra has (inexplicably) been given the last Golden Compass (also known as an Alethiometer), a device that reveals the truth to any question asked of it. Lyra discovers what her alluring captor has been up to and escapes, attracting outlandish allies along the way.
As with most fables, the story is more about the journey than the plot. Weitz's script plops you into this exotic vaguely Gilliamesque world with warring polar bears, shape-shifting familiars, cowboy aeronauts and bow-and-arrow wielding witches. It's both bewildering and alienating, offering a dense and multilayered tale that fails to create a coherent vision or sense of magic. Unlike Peter Jackson or Guillermo Del Toro, Weitz's grasp of the material is pedestrian; unable to match the personal struggles of the characters with the wondrous magic of the world they live in.
While the film's pace is breathless and its acting is superlative, Weitz's script gets mired in confusing exposition. There's a lot of talk about the magical and political conflicts in Lyra's fantastical world but our exposure to it is fleeting, as the movie dutifully barrels from one plot point to the next. More troubling is the film's inability to find an emotional line. We spend so little time on the characters' relationships that it's difficult to care about their individual struggles. The subplots are so truncated, one suspects there's a better film on the editing-room floor.
That is until Iorek Byrnison shows up. The disgraced prince of warrior ice bears, Byrnison (gloriously voiced by Ian McKellan) gives Golden Compass a needed shot of adrenaline. McKellan lends tragic Shakespearean nobility to the bear's high-priced pixels and the effect is both convincing and moving. The snowbound subplot finally provides Lyra with an opportunity to show her cunning and pluck while setting the stage for a rousing (and surprisingly violent) ursine duel.
From here, the movie picks up momentum, delivering an impressive final battle and important revelations — suggesting Pullman's book has more intrigue and political maneuverings than are evidenced here. Unfortunately, without a proper set up, these discoveries struggle to resonate and the film's finale fails to elevate the excitement for a sequel.
The Golden Compass has enough original ideas, interesting characters and fantastical details to merit a matinee showing, but without a cinematic sense of wonder or the challenging subtext of the source novel, it's doubtful it'll attract the kind of audiences needed to justify more films. Which is a shame because Pullman's later novels — shrouded in uncomfortable ideas and daring philosophies — could prove to be worthy films.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.