Laura CliffordYoung Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives at Jordan College of Oxford University with her daemon, Pantalaimon (voice of Freddie Highmore). While playing where she should not be, Lyra overhears a strange conversation between her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and the school’s scholars about something called dust. The children in the school begin to disappear, including her best friend Roger (Ben Walker), and Lyra learns that the vanishings are tied directly to the mysterious dust in “The Golden Compass.”
Director Chris Weitz adapts the first entry in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – Northern Lights (AKA The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The helmer/scribe has come up with a near faithful adaptation of the premier novel of the series and this may prove a problem to those uninitiated to the marvelous fantasy tale. But, for us fans of the books, you are in for a treat.
The story about children abducted, armored bears, warrior witches, flying machines and a strange device that tells the truth centers on smart, resourceful Lyra. Ever curious, her inadvertent eavesdropping saves Lord Asriel from certain death. He is at Jordan College to acquire the funding for an expedition to the far north to find the source of the dust that will open up the multiverse. He gets the funds and sets off on his mission, leaving Lyra behind. She decides to journey on her own, with Pan, to find her lost friend.
Before Lyra can set her plans in motion, she is introduced to the beautiful Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman in a perfect piece of casting) and immediately takes to the elegant lady who invites the girl to live with her. She also offers Lyra the chance to join her in an expedition to the north. Before the youngster leaves the confines of the college, she is called to the office of the school’s Master (Jack Shepherd). He bestows upon her the world’s last Alethiometer, knowing that she is the only one who can read the truth-telling device. He also warns Lyra to keep the possession of it to herself (and Pan).
The ever-curious Lyra does some snooping around Mrs. Coulter’s office and finds documents from the General Oblation Board. Horrified, she realizes that her new friend and benefactor is one of the dreaded Gobblers, mysterious and evil beings responsible for the increasing number of abductions of children. Lyra and Pan escape and are befriended by the Gyptians, nomadic warrior seafarers searching for one of their own, also kidnapped by the Gobblers. Lyra joins them and they head north to find and free the kidnapped children.
As the stalwart troupe sails north, his epic tale brings in all manner of strange and exotic beings. Lyra meets the witch queen Serafina Pekkala, Ian (Eva Green), down home Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) and his daemon, jack rabbit Hester (voice of Kathy Bates) and the powerful, valiant armored polar bear, Iorik Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen). Together, these warriors of justice and right must overcome all manner of obstacles in an action-packed and magical adventure.
Chris Weitz wastes not time in setting up the story of rescue and introducing the vast cast of characters. As I said, this may be much of a whirlwind of information to the novice and may require more than one viewing, there is so much going on. This will not be a problem for the fans, however, as we wallow in our familiarity with all of the wonderful characters (both good guys and bad guys) we came to know via the Pullman trilogy.
Even though there is a huge cast, time is spent establishing many of them as full fleshed characters. Veteran thespians – Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ian McShane and Tom Courtenay, among others – join the acting/vocal principals and help to give this fast-paced actioner resonance much greater than just cool F/X.
Techs are superior – cinematography (Henry Braham), music (Alexandre Desplat), costume (Ruth Myers with some 600 outfits, including Kidman’s gorgeous wardrobe), outstanding CGI F/X (especially the daemons – animal manifestations of each person soul. You will love little shape-shifting Pan and the rest – well, maybe not Mrs. Coulter’s nasty little golden baboon) - and make for top notch holiday season entertainment.
By Philip Pullman’s admission, His Dark Materials was aimed at older kids and young adults. But, the rousing adventure, mature themes and great characters make the trilogy one for all ages. Director Chris Weitz and company do the same for “The Golden Compass,” a fine first entry into what I hope will be a very satisfying movie trio. I give it a B+.
Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphaned tomboy with the run of the majestic London University her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, "Casino Royale," "The Invasion"), has entrusted her to while he travels in the far North. His discovery - that 'dust' can flow through a person's daemon (an animal representation that contains a person's spirit) and into them - makes him the target of the Magisterium, which is trying to stamp out knowledge of dust. After a visit with Lyra where he barely escapes being poisoned by a Magisterium emissary, Asriel returns to the North and Lyra is seduced by the stunning Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman "The Invasion," "Margot at the Wedding"), whom the University's Master is too overwhelmed by to deny. When Mrs. Coulter announces she is taking Lyra to the North as her 'assistant,' he does do one very important thing, though - he entrusts Lyra with an Alethiometer, the last truth-telling device not impounded by the Magisterium. It is "The Golden Compass."
Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, of which this is the first, have long been condemned by the Catholic Church as promoting atheism (the author is an atheist who based his work on John Milton's "Paradise Lost" among other things). They are now, of course, asking that parents not take their children to see this movie. Ridiculous. In "Compass," adapted and directed by Chris Weitz ("About a Boy"), 'dust' is akin to free will and spirituality, a completely Christian concept. But Pullman's Magisterium does represent organized religion and there lies the rub - perhaps its preying on young children cuts a little too deeply these days.
As for the film? Weitz seemed an odd choice for this material, but while he's done an OK job realizing the fantastical (except for some very dodgy CGI in sequences where Lyra rides upon the back of Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen, "The Lord of the Rings"), an ice bear), his adaptation fails to take a breath to lay the groundwork for Pullman's concepts - we simply have daemons, dust, and an alternate version of our own world and peoples thrust upon us and must hang on for the ride. Those who have read the books are sure to enjoy the film more than those who have not.
Lyra soon learns not to trust Coulter as she instinctually reads her coveted Compass. She is rescued from Coulter's hydroplane by the Gyptians, and travels northward with them. They include Gyptian King John Faa (Jim Carter, "Ella Enchanted") his counsel Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay, "Nicholas Nickleby") and Ma Costa (Clare Higgins, "Stage Beauty," "The Libertine"), whose son Billy (Charlie Rowe), a friend of Lyra's, was taken by Coulter's Gobblers, as was Lyra's best friend Roger (Ben Walker, "The Notorious Bettie Page"), who she has vowed to save. In the North, Lyra befriends shamed ice bear Iorek (the film's best scene, incredibly poignant, adult and realistic) who then battles his old foe Ragnar Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane, HBO's "Deadwood") to regain his kingdom and provide Lyra's Army. For in the far northern island of Bolvangar, Coulter's work for the Magisterium takes place - the separation of children from their daemons - a process which so far has had horrible results.
The film is exceptionally cast, beginning with Richards, the unpolished but plucky heroine. This fine young actress delivers her lines with an underlying hint of Cockney ('ent' for ain't) and gives such a strong performance that one could believe her actions could save an entire world. Cool Nicole Kidman is almost typecast she is so perfect as Coulter, a woman who cannot quite hide her evil intent beneath her glamorous exterior. Her daemon, a nasty golden monkey, is beautifully rendered. The Gyptians are an earthy, loving tribe well portrayed and Eva Green, Craig's "Casino Royale" costar, makes for an exotic Serafina Pekkala, leader of the witches. Sam Elliott ("Off the Map," "Thank You for Smoking") owns the role of Lee Scoresby, a cowboy aeronaut who joins Lyra's cause. Daemons to Lyra, the shape-shifting Pantalaimon who morphs from badger to bird to mouse, is sweetly voiced by Freddie Highmore ("August Rush") while Kathy Bates ("Misery") gives Southern flair to Lee's jackrabbit Hester.
Production Design by Dennis Gassner ("Road to Perdition") gives that recognizable but foreign feel to Pullman's world with its juxtapositions of the old world (clockworks, carriages, dirigibles) with the fantastical and futuristic (talking armored bears, robotics and other mechanical devices). Daemons are mostly natural looking, although the CGI is inconsistent (Craig's giant cat seems false when introduced, more natural later on). Costume design by Ruth Myers ("Nicholas Nickleby," "The Painted Veil") is Oscar worthy, with Coulter an obvious delight for inspiration. Original Music by Alexandre Desplat ("The Queen," "Lust, Caution") while typical of the genre is nicely orchestrated. Kate Bush's "Lyra," heard over the closing credits, is a knockout - best song of the year.
"The Golden Compass" isn't as successful as "The Fellowship of the Rings," or "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" were in blasting its audience into a fantastical series, but it has enough strong elements to make it endure as a family classic and leave us wanting more.
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