As it turns out, no one really needed to be quite so concerned. It’s true that The Golden Compass, while not necessarily anti-God, is clearly anti-institutionalized religion, and Pullman would probably be delighted to inspire questioning of dogma. But this film may ultimately work on exactly the opposite level. Somehow, The Golden Compass manages to make heterodoxy as boring as ass.
Fans of Pullman’s novels will insist that this must be a result of something being lost in translation, but that’s not necessarily the case. Pullman mined familiar Joseph Campbell ur-myth territory to create his heroine Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old orphan living in an alternate universe where humans’ souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animal-shaped companions called daemons. Like any good mythological heroine, Lyra is destined for an identity-defining quest, this one inspired by the potentially heretical investigations of her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), the serial kidnappings of young children, and Lyra coming into possession of the titular device, a mysterious truth-telling alethiometer. From her home at a London college, Lyra travels north—first with the glamorous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), and eventually with a group of “gyptians” (gypsies) eager to find their own lost children.
Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and his production team do a fine enough job of bringing Pullman’s alternate London to life. Futuristic spires mix with a vaguely Victorian atmosphere, the transportation a blend of dirigibles and gyroscope-driven carriages. A fantasy set in a world intended to be much like our own presents a unique challenge, but The Golden Compass looks distinctive without straining too hard.
Unfortunately, no one seemed to strain too hard to make the film compelling, either. Lyra herself, while clearly intended to be a spunky sort with a yen for adventure, never really develops a distinct personality, nor does newcomer Richards leap off the screen with charismatic presence. She’s surrounded by characters who similarly fill pre-assigned roles without ever coming to life. Sam Elliott growls wearily as the balloon-flying Lee Scoresby; Craig provides a glowering intensity before disappearing for most of the story; Kidman never quite turns Mrs. Coulter into a truly threatening villain. Even Iorek Byrnison—the shamed, alcoholic warrior-bear who becomes Lyra’s loyal protector—feels like a rote fantasy type, in part thanks to the too-familiar voice of Ian McKellen.
Such colorless characterizations would have been hard enough to overcome, but The Golden Compass truly falls flat thanks to its pacing. And unlike many would-be fantasy epics, it’s not because it overstays its welcome. Instead, Weitz chops the story into too many bite-size chunks, the 114-minute running time never allowing the narrative to develop any texture or sense of consequence. He finally stumbles upon a decent set piece in the duel of honor between Iorek and the bears’ usurper-king Ragnar (voiced by Deadwood’s Ian McShane), but it’s one of the few occasions when the action emerges from a patient setup. It’s a brutal irony that, in an apparent quest not to bore younger viewers by taxing their attention span, Weitz has made something tedious because virtually every significant moment exists as a tension-free stand-alone vignette.
As for the subtext, indeed, it’s none-too-subtle. While the controlling entity may not be specifically identified as a church, the film version of The Golden Compass even more baldly presents an allegorical framework wherein adult knowledge is equated with original sin, and scientific challenges to orthodox belief are deemed a threat. But for such a notion to work its nefarious powers on impressionable youngsters, they’ll need to be engaged enough to pay attention. The menagerie of daemons flitting through the margins can’t give The Golden Compass any soul—and there’s no need to fear for the soul of anyone who’s dozing off in the seat next to you.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS
Dakota Blue Richards