Review: ‘The Golden Compass’

For a film that supposedly promotes Atheism, at least it’s more entertaining than last year’s Christian allegory The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is young girl in a parallel world where people’s souls walk beside them as animal familiars called “daemons.” Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), is a scholar seeking to prove the existence of Dust, a mystical substance that not only suggests that parallel worlds exist but may provide the means to cross over into them. Standing against him is Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) of the Magisterium, a cult-like order that imposes its will upon the populace in the name of maintaining peace and order. Her task is to debunk the existence of Dust as heresy and maintain order, but with the mysterious disappearances of children and rumors of their fate, all these events may be related and pointing to something dark on the horizon.

To say that there is a lot of story going on here is an understatement. Based on the book series “His Dark Materials,” The Golden Compass is the first of three books that New Line Cinema hopes to launch as a trilogy comparable to The Lord of the Rings. As an undertaking, the world itself is a huge undertaking, combining mythical elements with an elegant Victorian-based brass and glass technology that almost mystically powers their modern world. From airships to castles and warrior bears to animal familiars, both the special and practical effects aren’t on the cheap side. Also, in spite of a fairly linear plot with few twists or turns, everything happening seems important.

Story-wise, care is taken to layer the elements into the story as each is introduced, but their doesn’t seem to be much time to spend thinking too much about each one. There are upper class lords and ladies as well as lower class commoners, plus there are supernatural races such as sentient polar bears and an army of broomstick-riding witches. It’s easy to fall behind with so much going on, but there’s also very little background distraction to hint of a larger world beyond the story, and that’s probably a good choice with so much to keep up with. At the same time, that choice also lends itself to making the world seem very small and predictable; upper class enjoy finery and looking down their noses, lower class are dirty and lurk in shadows, and the bears act like gruff talking animals.

The film manages to come to a satisfying conclusion but harbors no secret that more is meant to come. Much in the same way that The Fellowship of the Ring ended but still continued on, The Golden Compass leaves plenty to do and see if the next two films are made. All of that, of course, depends on the box office, and unfortunately as of this writing, it has been disappointing. Sadly, the film actually deserves an audience and is every bit as wondrous and in scope as The Lord of the Rings (even if it isn’t as cool). Personally, I’d like to see how it ends, so here’s hoping it finds a following.

(a three skull recommendation out of four)

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