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Movie Review: The Golden Compass

Ok, I get the idea of alternative universes. I even dig the concept of a semi-steampunk world where people’s souls are ‘outside their bodies’, and exist as anthropomorphic animals that may or may not have the ability to speak (dependent on the importance of the character). I can even follow the idea of Nicole Kidman… well, when she is dressed as fine as that, I can follow her pretty much anywhere.

But. This movie, I did not get.

Where to begin? The introduction is all of 10 seconds before we’ve zoomed into the world of Lyra, a pre-teen English child – and if you’ve any idea of English fantasy novels, you will instantly click onto the fact that this protagonist is going to be our key character.

Let’s take a moment to look at that here. What is it about the English children in English fantasy stories that make them the ones that are pivotal to everything? For some reason, they’re imbued with a sense of indestructibility and of instant disregard for order, and manage to pull off feats which would be unthinkable for the ordinary grown-up. Yes, it is fantasy, but I’m detecting a cultural pattern here.

Lyra here comes from the Harry Potter school of heroism, running off with little preparation or foresight in an effort to save the world from itself, nobly assisted by a varied cast (that includes one angry polar ice bear, of all things voiced by Ian McKellan) who rush to the child’s aid regardless of the potential cost to themselves and the stupidity of the child which got them into the situation in the first place.

But I’m not here to critique the world of English fantasy literature; The Golden Compass – adapted from Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – is the first of three movies, although you never get that indication from the film itself, which is questionable restraint on the part of the producers, given this is nowhere near as renowned as The Lord of the Rings.

From one who hasn’t read the source material, this better be the one that establishes the characters over the plot, because if the next two lack as much exposition as this one it’s going to be a bit of a mess. The entire movie feels a little like it’s there to introduce the characters and the world, with action aplenty to keep it interesting. However, it ends up feeling like you’re skim-reading, trying to get to the good bits – it doesn’t help to explain the world and how it works, and so the menace of some of the bad guys is played down, simply because we’re not given a clear picture of why they are menacing.

Nicole Kidman has a decent amount of screen time, but Daniel Craig appears all too briefly for such an intriguing character; Eva Green too makes far too little impact. Dakota Blue Richards does well, but she is a child yet, and yet to grow into acting quite within the range demanded of her in this movie.

Overall, puzzling. It intrigued me for its setup, but with most walking out of the movie scratching their heads, its merit is questionable yet. If it improves with the second volume… who knows. Read the books, I say.

★★

2 replies on “Movie Review: The Golden Compass

Hey, it’s the fact that it’s the child that does everything where the equivalent adult character can’t pull off the same trick. might sound nitpicky, but the whole precocious-child-as-hero thing is wearing on me.

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