It's Christmas season, so it must be time for another British fantasy adaptation. Sadly, it's just not as magical this time around.
Just like the book it's based on, The Golden Compass is better than The Chronicles of Narnia but not as good as The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the movie's closer to Narnia, another adaptation of a beloved book that sacrificed emotional resonance to expensive visual effects.
Despite its anti-church message, it has all the outer trappings of its overtly Christian predecessors, Narnia and Lord of the Rings: the familiar Royal Shakespeare Company casting call, a bombastic score, a reliance on computer-generated eye candy, and, of course, a breathtakingly expansive story and fully realized fantasy world that overshadows all other faults when the director allows it to poke through the digital clouds. The Golden Compass is an occasionally great movie that too often settles for being a perfunctory, rushed line reading.
The heroine is Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a young girl living in an Oxford, England in a parallel universe. She has a daemon named Pantalaimon (Freddie Highmore), the animal manifestation of her human soul, and they are inseparable. Upon leaving the university she is given a golden truth-telling compass. She is pursued for it by the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who works for the head of the sinister childnapping Magisterium (Derek Jacobi). She seeks her adventuring uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and attempts to rescue the children the Magisterium has taken. On her way, she is helped by a motley fantasy assembly of seafaring gyptians, a kind witch (Eva Green), a balloon-flying aeronaut (Sam Elliott), and an armored bear (Ian McKellen).
The cast is the strongest link, but they are given far too little to do. Kidman, beautiful and evil, is perfectly cast. Reunited from the last Bond film, Craig and Green are fine in their brief time on screen. The voice talent is a similarly underused embarrassment of riches: McKellen, as well as Kathy Bates, Freddie Highmore, Ian McShane, and Kristin Scott Thomas. (Bates, McShane, and Scott Thomas have around 30 lines of dialogue between them.)
Dakota Blue Richards does a sensational job in her film debut, and if the movie ever appears coherent or whole, it's her doing. While most of the other actors are hurried on and offstage to fit the story into a two-hour film, she's in nearly every scene, courageous, fierce, and captivating. Casting her was the single most important decision the filmmakers made, and they nailed it.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the choice of the adaptor/director, Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy). He quit at one point during the making of the movie because he didn't feel up to handling the amount of CGI necessary, and it shows, as the CGI frequently overwhelms the screen while the actors have little to do but gawk impassively. The film has no sense of pace, choppily moving from scene to scene as if filling a checklist rather than telling a story. Weitz handles his child actors well, as he did in About a Boy, but like Andrew Adamson (Narnia) and Chris Columbus (Harry Potter 1 and 2) before him, he's simply not up to the transition from comedy to fantasy epic. The script shares the same problem as the special effects: overweening, too talky, too busy.
The movie looks good, the actors act well, and the plot on screen resembles the plot in the book, despite a few necessary changes and elisions. The trouble is that it has all been done before, and done better in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. Jackson's special effects served his movie. Weitz has made a movie that serves its special effects. The wonderful Philip Pullman novels offer a remarkably full vision of a world that hasn't been seen before, all couched within a grand allusion to Paradise Lost. Weitz's movie feels like the Cliff's Notes screensaver version of Pullman's imagination, nice to look at but empty underneath the surface.
In the end, The Golden Compass is a somewhat enjoyable popcorn movie, particularly if expectations are not too high and attachment to the novels is not too deep. The pace is brisk at two hours, and the movie certainly never drags. The film's central action setpiece, an animated brawl to the death between two armored bears, is satisfying. The cast is remarkable, and Dakota Blue Richards is the best new young actress since Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth. Despite Weitz's unsure footing, the movie is good enough to make the promise of sequels enticing.
But it's nowhere near as good as it should be. And that's enough to make one wish that all fantasy movies from now on could simply be made by Peter Jackson.