Monday, December 10, 2007

The Golden Compass / ***½ (PG-13)

Lyra Belacqua: Dakota Blue Richards
Marisa Coulter: Nicole Kidman
Lord Asriel: Daniel Craig
Roger: Ben Walker
Serafina Pekkala: Eva Green
Lee Scoresby: Sam Elliott
Fra Pavel: Simon McBurney

With the voice talents of:
Pantalaimon: Freddie Highmore
Iorek Byrnison: Ian McKellen
Ragnar Sturlusson: Ian McShane

New Line Cinema presents a film written and directed by Chris Weitz. Based on the novel by Philip Pullman. Running time: 113 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence).

Days before the release of “The Golden Compass”, The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops broke away from the thinking of the Catholic League and their call for a boycott of the film. According to the Conference’s review of the film, “explicit references to this church” found in the book “have been completely excised” from the movie. Perhaps they realized, as anyone watching the film would, that calling for any sort of boycott would merely associate their agenda with those of the story’s villains.

Taken from the pages of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” fantasy series, “The Golden Compass” tells the age-old story of one group of people trying to suppress the free will of others. It takes place in a world other than ours where each human has his own animal daemon, a sort of familiar that chooses its shape during childhood and is mortally linked with its human. If the human is killed, so is his daemon. If the daemon is hurt, the human feels its pain.

The world created by Pullman, and recreated here by writer director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) with the utmost familiarity, is a richly detailed, complex place filled with several sentient races of importance, including the Gyptians, Witches and a race of intelligent warrior Polar Bears with the ability of speech. The production design and visual effects are spectacular, giving us industrial age pastoral landscapes, advanced urban structure and technology, and a cold northern climate that holds many secrets from the people of this wonderful world.

The story is an adventure for 10-year-old Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), whom Lyra thankfully refers to as Pan. Lyra is the last in a line of people with a special gift to read a truth telling device known as The Golden Compass. She begins her adventure by saving the life of her uncle, the enigmatic Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, “Casino Royale”). He is nearly poisoned by a member of the Magisterium named Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney, “The Last King of Scotland”) for his proposed expedition to the North to discover the true nature of a life force material known as Dust.

As Asriel travels to the North, Lyra finds herself in the care Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman, “Bewitched”). Despite Ms. Coulter’s niceties, her allegiance to the Magisterium makes her motives seem just as sinister as Pavel’s. The Magisterium is controlled by a High Council portrayed by fittingly dubious British heavies such as Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi. When it appears that Ms. Coulter is attempting to steal the compass, Lyra strikes off on her own to find her uncle and some children that went missing from her school.

This is a tale where any further description can only serve to harm the experience for viewers who are uninitiated into Pullman’s fantasy world. As one of them myself, I can’t say how devoted followers will take it. A story where a truth-seeing little girl enlists the aid of a gun-toting aerialist (Sam Elliott, “The Hulk”) and an armored polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen, “The Da Vinci Code”) to help her free children from a mysterious experimental facility where everyone has an animal companion that chooses its own shape and is destroyed with its counterpart may be a stretch for some audience members. But it is presented in such a casual way by the filmmakers—like everything in this world is just common knowledge—that once you get caught up in it, it seems like an adventure classic on par with the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

I’m sure there will be detractors who will complain that it is impossible to understand what’s going on, what with all this talk about daemons and dust and witches and ongoing conflicts that may or may not factor in to the bigger picture. But who ever heard of a Jedi or a Wookie or even the Force before George Lucas took us on his grand adventure. And like that fantasy masterpiece, the story of Lyra’s adventure is much simpler than the world which contains it. I can see a new generation of filmgoers obsessing over the contents of Pullman’s world in much the same way mine embraced the “Star Wars” mythology.

What I cannot fathom is how critics (and audiences apparently) have so casually dismissed this film. There is a powerful mythology established in this, what is surely the first episode of many, and an amazing attention to the detail necessary to sell a world so far removed from our own. Perhaps it is the very basic theme of how oppression of the general populace by the elite works that threw critics. Perhaps it didn’t live up to the hype created by the Catholic League’s condemnation of the film, since its villains could so easily represent many different forms of oppressive fraternities. To me their actions smacked more of Nazi fascism than anything else. Regardless of what others might think about it, I do hope it brings in enough money to warrant further installments of the series. It is one that promises to endure, if audiences will give it a chance.

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