This isn’t an anti-American thing, but I don’t like the title ‘The Golden Compass’. I can understand the need for a more universal title for Northern Lights (the first part of His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman) but The Golden Compass seems rather derogatory and denigrating towards the alethiometer. It could be just me but it comes across as a kid’s name for it (which might be what happens in the book – I can’t recall exactly) and belittles it. Which is a coincidence, because the film belittles the book. See what I did there?
The Golden Compass the film is the (faithful) adaptation of the plot of the book, not the book itself. In both, Lyra Belacqua is a ward of Jordan College, Oxford, niece of famous explorer Lord Asriel, who is given one of the remaining alethiometers before she leaves with Mrs Coulter to go to London. She then escapes to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers, with the aid of the Gyptians and the armoured polar bear Ioren Brynison and aeronaut Lee Scoresby and witch Serafina Pekkala. But that’s it. It’s like someone made a film of the treatment. The book is very plot-heavy, but there is a lot more going on in the book (which makes it so enjoyable) that couldn’t be contained within a film.
It is understandable that the book would be adapted into a visual medium, apart from the plot – the world in which Lyra lives is one in which a part of their soul is externalised in the form of an animal of the opposite sex (a daemon) that can change into other animal shapes until they mature (around puberty). This is a fantastic visual, something which the CGI of the film pulls off with élan. Add to this a fight between armoured polar bears, a steampunk alternate England and a fight at the end which includes flying witches with bows and arrows, and you have a combination that deserves to be seen as well as read. Unfortunately, 2 hours doesn’t allow anytime to enjoy it all and it comes off as rushed. People don’t seem to interact, they just spout exposition at each other because there’s no time.
There are some good things – the daemons are exquisite (such as when Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, has his fur turn white when talking about going to the north), the wonderful fight between the armoured polar bears, the final fight scene, the production design of the world in which they live – and 12-year-old Dakota Blue Richards is incredibly impressive as Lyra, especially as she on-screen throughout. Nicole Kidman is perfect as the icy Mrs Coulter (Pullman was right when he could imagine no one else in the role), but she comes off best in the adult roles, with effectively cameos for the likes of Daniel Craig (as Asriel), Eva Green (perfectly cast as the ethereal Pekkala), or Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee as members of the Magisterium.
However, the film never really gels into something special, despite all the good ingredients. The rush of the plot, the lack of substance and, unfortunately, the not-quite-up-to-the-job direction of Weitz (out of his depth on such an epic scale) leave barely an impression at the end of the running time, especially as they end before the book does, robbing the film and the character of Lyra depth and maturation. I can see this as a film enjoyed by children for the spectacle and the presence of a believable and fascinating leading young character, but it will look odd in future viewings on Christmas television when the ending suggests future instalments that don’t arrive (based on US box office), especially as Weitz has gone out of his way to include all the set-ups for the next film.