It’s ironic that Chris Weitz—the writer/director best know for collaborating with his brother Paul on About a Boy and American Pie —quit The Golden Compass at one point because the action novice didn’t think he could handle the spectacular special-effects shots that would be needed to bring the first tale in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy to the silver screen. The action sequences—pulse-pounders pitting armored artic bears, ephemeral flying witches, seafaring gypsies and, um, a cowboy in a hot-air balloon against the alternately black-robed and white-coated underlings of an oppressive theocracy—are actually the only outstanding aspect of this less-than-golden adaptation, which is ultimately undermined by its strictly tinny storytelling.
A head-scratcher of an opening voiceover hastily introduces us to the world of 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (played with pluck by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), one in which humans’ souls manifest as animal spirits called—confusingly—“daemons.” Like the early scenes that follow it, the voiceover emphasizes certain aspects of this alternate reality that are rather self-explanatory and skips past others that have a greater relevance to the plot of the picture—especially the boogeyman-like “Gobblers” who kidnap troublesome children.
The pacing is also problematic, as Lyra lurches through an adventure involving both her guardian Lord Asriel’s (Daniel Craig) “heretical” expedition to the North to discover the true nature of elementary particles known as “Dust” and her best friend Roger’s (Ben Walker) apparent abduction by the Gobblers. Her journey is jumpstarted by an encounter with the icily imperious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), an agent of the theocratic “Magisterium” who offers Lyra an opportunity to accompany her to the North. Of course, neither Mrs. Coulter nor Lord Asriel—nor Lyra herself, for that matter—are exactly who our heroine believes them to be.
Nor is The Golden Compass what New Line believes it to be—the next Lord of the Rings saga—despite an after-thought appearance by that blockbuster’s Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) and a voiceover role by its Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen).
Distributor: New Line
Cast: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Tom Courtenay, Jim Carter and Ben Walker
Director/Screenwriter: Chris Weitz
Producers: Deborah Forte and Bill Carraro
Genre: Action-adventure fantasy
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence
Running time: 118 min.
Release date: December 7, 2007