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The Golden Compass: Visually Cool, Otherwise Frustrating

The His Dark Materials fantasy books by Philip Pullman may be well-written and mesmerizing, but as a cinematic experience, the movie version of the first book doesn't really have two CGI legs to stand on. I've never read the books, in part because I wanted to critique The Golden Compass for what it is: a film. I don't think allowances should be made for the movie based on the quality of the books — they're two different mediums. And after seeing The Golden Compass, I'm not convinced this particular story should have ventured into the movie world at all.

The story follows Lyra, an orphaned girl raised by scholars who receives a golden compass allowing her to see the truth of things. She embarks on an adventure involving daemons, armored bears, cowboys and gyspsies (gyptians). Along the way, she falls in with an evil icy lady (Nicole Kidman) who's trying to "help" children by taking away their ability to think freely. She determines to rescue the children from this fate and in the meantime she makes friends and battles various other evildoers. Then the movie basically alludes to how cool the next few movies will be and the credits roll. For more of my thoughts on the film,

Yes, the visuals are very cool. Talking armored bears are very cool. Shapeshifting daemons that follow around each human are neat to watch. Other aspects of this fantasy world, like the flying Skyferry, are whimsical. But these don't add up to a satisfying end product. Discussing the performances — besides Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, in a pretty much flawless turn — is mostly pointless. Nicole Kidman is great in her role, but she can't save this movie, and Daniel Craig is in the film for approximately eight minutes.

This is not merely the opinion of someone unfamiliar with the novels. I attended the screening with YumSugar, who knows all the His Dark Materials books, and she was equally frustrated by the movie. I believe the word she used was "boring." There is an epic battle toward the end, with a roaring bear and swooping witches and yet . . . still boring. In addition, Yum mentioned that the general feeling of the movie is cold and clinical, that she expected "a tiny bit of warmth" from it. She noted that much of the book was smooshed haphazardly together, lending a rushed feeling to the whole thing. Understandably, long and involved novels made into movies don't have the luxury of time to develop all the necessary storylines and characters. But in my opinion, if one cannot achieve any kind of cohesive storyline in the film version of a book, perhaps that film should not be made. To quote Yum, "As someone who’s read the books, I felt there wasn’t enough character development. I can't imagine what you must have felt like."

The most infuriating aspect of the whole thing is the ending which, according to Yum, cuts off a few chapters before the book does. After hours of random adventures, we listen to Lyra list off all the exciting things she has to take care of in the future. I figured this meant that we would experience all these things with her in the final few minutes of the movie or something, because no way would they just end the movie there, with Lyra explaining how they could tie up their loose ends. But no. There are allusions to how great the second movie will be and then blackout. The entire film, then, is one big prologue for the next installment. And while that's true for many a serial movie, at least some films that are part of a trilogy can stand alone as one complete story arc. The same cannot be said for The Golden Compass. So, if this is merely one long setup for the second movie and it's not a great movie on its own, it feels a lot like a waste of time.

Photos courtesy of New Line Cinema

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