First High Councilor: It’s the Golden Compass, Lyra. I feel you’re meant to have it.
Lyra: But what’s it for?
Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) lives in a world where witches wage war and giant polar bears are warriors. The people she walks amongst walk alongside their daemon spirits, which are essentially each person’s soul manifest in physical and animal form. The ruling power of this world is called the Magisterium and they seek more to control rather than govern. Everything in the world began at one time with dust but now dust and the supposed answers it holds for a better future are not to be mentioned in public settings. This is a world divided between free will, the individual powers held within the soul and a looming force that threatens to eliminate the infinite possibilities these privileges provide. Unbeknownst to her, Lyra is the central figure in the inevitable clash that lies ahead and her power can be found in her ability to read the world’s single remaining alethiometer, otherwise known as “The Golden Compass”. When held by this little girl, the alethiometer will reveal the answers to the questions that have yet to be answered. Lyra’s world is beautifully painted and richly textured but why we need to be there to see it never becomes clear in this icy, hollow attempt to become the next must-see fantasy trilogy.
Writer/Director Chris Weitz originally backed out on directing this project. He felt the grandiose special effects driven blockbuster was out of his directorial league. Having only directed a couple of smaller comedies (“About a Boy” and an uncredited second director on “American Pie”), I can understand why he would be overwhelmed by the task of adapting Philip Pullman’s first book in the “Dark Material” series. I’m not clear on why he decided to come back on though because his lack of confidence in his own capabilities as well as the competency of his audience is omnipresent throughout the film and leaves “The Golden Compass” on rather thin ice. Once the first ten minutes of narration have given us all the information we will need to understand our surroundings (see the first paragraph of this review), the subsequent scenes seem to run in a very specific order. One scene will explain what we are about to see, the next will show us what has just been described and the one that follows will clarify whatever we might have missed. If Weitz does not feel his magical world to be believable, how can we be expected to?
Urgency is also lacking in “The Golden Compass”. We know because we are told that Lyra, according to the prophecies of the witches, is the one person with the ability to read the alethiometer. We also know that, again because we are told, that a great war is coming. Lyra’s special talent will be pivotal to a positive outcome in this battle. The battle itself has something to do with free will, dust and control. What we are not told is exactly how these things tie back to Lyra. Without knowing what all this fighting is truly for (which may be missing as the novel’s religious implications and criticisms have been removed almost entirely as to not alienate any viewers that may have been offended by these subjects). Still, we know that no good can come if anything is to happen to Lyra so there is never any actual fear or concern that she is in any real danger. Young newcomer, Richards, is charismatic and fun enough to win over your sympathy and caring as Lyra, but this is not enough in Weitz’s world. No, here, escape from each perilous situation she finds herself in is certain and thus the film is devoid of suspense and often disappointingly predictable.
“The Golden Compass” is much more along the same vein as the Harry Potter movies or the Narnia franchise than a successor to the throne where the Lord of the Rings trilogy sits quite comfortably. Peter Jackson drew millions into the plight of a few hobbits by allowing their journey and its importance to speak for itself and by making correlations between that world and ours. Weitz has no control over the vast ground he has to cover. He’s got polar bears, daemons and witches to think about; he’s got to build a story when the original intended theme is not allowed to be mentioned overtly; he’s got legions of fans to please while simultaneously appeasing the demands of the Hollywood executives that sign his checks. It’s as if Hollywood is the contemporary Magisterium and Weitz is little Lyra. Hollywood wants to control everything and make sure that certain elements remain unmentioned and Weitz holds the key to a strong future. Only Weitz hasn’t learned how to read his golden compass and what he leaves us with is an obvious play for fantasy gold that will likely please very few.
Review by Joseph Bélanger