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The Golden Compass

The 2007 film adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy novel.

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Very good special effects, not so good everything else

  • Dec 28, 2007
Pros: Special effects, especially with regards to the daemons.

Cons: Inconsistent acting, horrible pacing, and very bad music

The Bottom Line: Difficult to recommend. If special effects make or break a film for you, watch it in the theater, otherwise wait for DVD.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.

The Golden Compass is a difficult movie for people who are familiar with the novel; given this, I can’t imagine that a casual viewer would be able to remember how all of the subtleties of this extra-universal London/earth work.

Before I go into the details, I need to explain what is very unique to Lyra’s world. Their souls/spirits are animals and outside the body. Except in certain circumstances, the daemon (pronounced like demon in the film), the animal cannot be separated from its associated human. Children’s daemons can switch and be almost any animal. As the children age, the change occurs less and less, when they hit puberty, the daemon animal cannot be changed. There are specific rules with regards to these “creatures,” but there is no need to cover them here.

The main character is a precocious preteen Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards). She spends significant time playing with the Gyptian (basically seagoing gypsies) boys—Lyra is no lady and makes this very clear.

Lyra spies on her Uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) who wants the college to fund a trip to the magnetic North Pole so he can examine how “dust” flows through the universe in general and this version of earth specifically. Dust is a cosmological force represented by invisible particles. The Magisterium, a quasi-religious, quasi-dictatorship is totally against this because they see dust as a threat to their plans to rid the universe of this force/particle stuff. She insists that she wants to go with him but is rebuffed.

While this is going on, poor children (Gyptian or servant children) are being kidnapped by what they call Gobblers, the name is based on an acronym rather than just being a silly sounding serial kidnapper.

Lyra meets Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) who beguiles Lyra with a promise to take her on an adventure to the north. Just before she is ready to go, the Master of the college gives Lyra an alethiometer (aka a golden compass). The device is a sort of clockwork with a score of pictures. No one really knows how to read it, but with a little advice she is able to make it work. The device allows the user to see the truth or to see situations of hidden things. Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium want this last golden compass so their move to total domination can be complete.

From here, Lyra travels north with Gyptians, meets Mr. Scorseby (Sam Elliot) an aeronaut cowboy type, a disgraced armored bear whom Lyra helps, and a witch. They are all on the same side and are heading to an outpost at the magnetic north pole. The outpost is trying to create a specific form of energy that will allow the Magesterium to put an end to the whole dust nonsense.

The summary is long because the plot ties and interactions are difficult to sum up in just a few words. I have given nothing away that would spoil the plot—Asriel’s trip north, dust, and Ms. Coulter all appear very early in the film. How it plays out is what I have elided on purpose.

First a general analysis, then a cultural one.

I loved the book even though it had the meanest scene of any book of fiction I have ever read (covered in the movie but only by half). I am not a reviewer who pays attention to a film to see where it differs from the book or other medium—each must or does translate as it will. If the items in the film are totally unrecognizable to the book, then there is an issue. This massive departure is not part of The Golden Compass.

When I read the novel I had very vivid images of what I expected each character to look like. For my mind it was nearly exactly what I had imagined (including Mr. Elliot as Mr. Scoresby) from a purely personal level, it was very eerie.

First the bad. The music is terrible. It doesn’t enhance the mood; it takes over all action and seems so out of place that it is very distracting; the recessional song was awful enough to make me flee the theater as fast as I could. The acting is inconsistent for all but the three principles and only Ms. Richards was continuously consistent. Ms. Kidman played her very complex character very flatly—glamour was all she cared about not character development. Mr. Craig was consistent but not really in it long enough to screw things up. Everyone else was just a random pick up from central casting (this especially true of the Gyptians).

The Golden Compass used Christopher Lee as (guess what) an evil character. I have never liked him in any role because they are all the same. He was a huge distraction in The Fellowship of the Rings and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Every character he plays is exactly the same. His role here lasts about thirty seconds, but I was always on minor tenterhooks that he would appear again and ruin parts of another movie. The film also used the voice of Ian McKellen as the voice of the warrior bear Iorek Byrnison. Throw in Elijah Wood and Hugo Weaving and it could be a Lord of the Rings reunion.

The film is also poorly aimed and has terrible pacing. Neither the book nor the movie is exclusively for girls though a girl is the protagonist. There is enough action for boys to like it. The problem is that there is too much fighting, most of it very violent, making it a movie that might get a 11-14 year old boy excited, but there is very little in it for girls. But even this covers only the younger set—the film is probably too complicated for tweens or younger, unless they have read the book. So it seems aimed at adults who would likely not put it on their list for the simple reason that it seems like a kid’s movie (given this, it is no wonder that the American box office receipts are so bad). I’m not sure that director Chris Weitz (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) screwed this up—he’s never made a film for the tween set—or if he screwed up the script.

There is no denying Mr. Weitz screwed up the pacing. There would be talky bits where the rules of this parallel world are explained (but you must be vigilant with your attention or much of what you see will confound you). Mixed in this are massively long or just massive and very confusing battle scenes. If these sequences were handled in a balanced way it wouldn’t have been a (sarcastically) fantastic movie to express the hurry up and wait mentality of a DMV line.

Now the good. I have panned so much of the film it would appear that there is little or no good to it. While I will use fewer words, these relatively simple things save the film from total disaster.

There is no denying it is a massive treat for the eyes. Vivid colors dominate. The special effects are also top notch with one exception (when Lyra rides on Iorek it looks like a scene cut from The Polar Express. Other than that, the interaction between human and animal is at least as good as The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I decided to see the film because I was intensely curious as to how the film would handle the very complex nature of daemons, especially with children since they can change shape so quickly. Pan (full name Pantilamon) is Lyra’s daemon. He is alternately a weasel (or ferret), a sable, a moth, a bird, and a cat. The changes are sooth and natural enough to make it look truly real. If for no other reason, this would be a good thing to watch when it is released on DVD.

Likewise, even if the battle scenes are sometimes difficult to follow, the special effects that create them are top notch—the bear duel is especially impressive.

Due to the lack of support for the film, there is question about whether the next book, The Subtle Knife will be produced. These types of films that rely so heavily on special effects are expensive (this one costing $180 million) it is no wonder Fine Line would not create a second one. I can’t say this would truly disappoint me, but The Subtle Knife has so much action and exposition carefully balanced and a fantastic relation between the parallel Englands, so that would be a minor disappointment.

I want to recommend it without warnings or concerns, but I can’t. It is only an average movie because the story is not well presented. The special effects are worth it, but it may be a wait for DVD, so you can jump from scene to scene rather than sit through the whole thing at the theater.

The review is complete, what I mention below are the religio-cultural issues

The cultural issues revolve around the His Dark Materials trilogy. The Magisterium and Azriel are both trying to get to a universe that can be called Heaven, but they go for different reasons. The religious protest is that these books don’t just tackle religion, their aim is, bluntly, to destroy it. For a never-believer, this isn’t bad at all, it is just a story. For religious reactionaries, this series does fly in the face of what most of them believe. What I’m about to say will probably make regular readers of my reviews a little confused. I don’t disagree with them.

His Dark Materials takes on a sacred topic for the faithful. Yes they are just stories, but these are not precocious kids playing pranks or having to go on a journey for some treasure or other. These children are chasing after adults. The children do not have a grasp on what the adults are up to, but the adults certainly know what they are up to. This attempt to get to Heaven pits the church (The Magisterium) against those who want to destroy at least parts of heaven so the free will vs predestination (among other religious beliefs) can finally be settled in favor exclusively of free will.

This battle is what makes the faithful nervous. Also, this is one of the rare occasions where a group can protest even without having read the novels. Harry Potter was a more esoteric fight of good vs evil.

For the Harry Potter novels it is difficult for someone to say, with any legitimacy, that they are against the material in the book based on second or third hand knowledge. The magical use is far more limited than the uninformed would accept. Further, nearly all of the magic performed outside the school is dark magic, but the good magic—being taught for practical use for the most part—is limited to just a few places until the good/evil battle turns into high gear. Those against it would have others believe that all of this is just hair splitting or that what I’ve just written is incorrect. It isn’t hair splitting; if most of the magic being used apart from the school is evil magic and the students are being taught to use their skills responsibly, then this is a vast difference. Besides, the foundation of the HP novels is good vs evil. And if evil ever triumphs at any point, it is short lived.

His Dark Materials sets out from the get ready to attack religion head on. The novelist, Philip Pullman has said this from early on and has never backed down from this idea at all. So, knowing this, the people who object on religious grounds can be given a decent amount of latitude to be disturbed. However, in order to be a legitimate argument, they can only attack this idea. If they venture into any details got second or third hand, their argument falls apart because, while the detail might be correct, the interpretation of it will likely not be.


Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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More The Golden Compass reviews
review by . September 17, 2008
When this movie was green-lighted for production, the studios were obviously hoping to hop on the Fantasy Movie bandwagon and take advantage of the momentum created by the Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies.  Despite the very high quality of the visual effects, this movie was poorly executed.  Part of the problem may be a result of the movie being based on the first book of a trilogy.  I won't ruin the movie by giving away any spoilers... essentially because the movie abruptly ends …
review by . December 24, 2008
Early Poster
WARNING: This review may contain spoilers!      I suppose it's not surprising, what with the current trend of adapting fantasy literature into films, that Philip Pullman's novel The Golden Compass should become a major motion picture. What is surprising is who ended up writing the screenplay and directing the film. Chris Weitz, best known as one of the producers of the American Pie films, seems an odd choice to adapt the epic fantasy story for the silver screen and …
review by . April 29, 2009
I was greatly disappointed with this film after hearing how wonderful the books were. It was boringly long and the characters lacked any depth especially the various children and the little girl who has the power to be able to ascertain the truth through the compass.     The one interesting thing about the movie is that everyone has their own personal daemon that looks like an animal. The daemon is able to change at will between different types of animals until its host attains …
review by . November 15, 2008
Short Attention Span Summary (SASS)     1. A governing body called the Magesterium sets the rules and tells people what to think and when to think it.   2. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) aren't very good at following rules.   3. In this world, a person's soul lives outside of their body in the form of an animal called a daemon.   4. Mrs. Coulter has one heck of an ugly soul, and a …
review by . June 07, 2008
This movie is based on a book, the first book of a trilogy. I have never read any of these books, and have no intention to, so this review is purely of the movie itself, as a standalone piece of entertainment.     First of, contrary to what some other reviews have suggested, there is minimal resemblance between this movie and the LOTR, Narnia, and Harry Potter movies of recent release. Unlike LOTR, this movie is more intellectual and the conflicts more subtle and nuanced. For …
review by . May 21, 2008
I've been looking forward to this film for the past couple of weeks. And while there are a lot of very strong reviews for this film there were one or two which really slated it, so I expected an average forgettable film which might at least entertain me. And I do like fantasy stories.    This movie was an if for me at first, being that it just seemed like one of the many quickly thrown together fantasy novels/movies that have supposed huge followings. However, I found myself …
review by . May 03, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
It is easy enough to say that "the book was better than the movie" -- since it is usually true that books offer a wealth of world that can only be hinted at in a couple of hours -- but this is a clear and disappointing case where the cliche fits. Even films like the Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series don't really measure up to the original books they were based upon -- but in the case of those films, especially the Lord of the Rings series, the movies work on their own. They establish …
review by . May 03, 2008
Not being one who seeks out the seemingly endless line of Harry Potter/Narnia/Lord of the Rings tropes (a little computer generated monster realm goes a long way), THE GOLDEN COMPASS came somewhat as a pleasant surprise. Yes, this is still a fantasy film, but the emphasis is more on stylish creation of various animals (in the forms of 'daemons' that accompany children as their souls, morphing into various animal life at will) than tiresome explosions and flying beasties.    Lyra …
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Paul Savage ()
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I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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The Golden Compass is an adaptation of the first book in the beloved but controversial fantasy series by Phillip Pullman. The story opens with Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) an orphan girl who lives in an alternate world that is similar to earth, but where people's souls exist outside of their bodies in animal form. The people are ruled by a shadowy and oppressive council known as the Magisterium, which is doing it's best to keep everyone from getting information about what is called "Dust." Lyra's Uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig) has been researching Dust, and he has seen to it that Lyra is given safe shelter at Jordan College. But when the visiting Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) arrives, she asks Lyra to accompany her on a trip to the North to meet the Panserbjorne, a race of armored bears. Before Lyra leaves, the Headmaster gives her a golden compass, a device which only she can read, and from which she can intuit the truth. Lyra leaves with Mrs. Coulter, but when she learns that her friends have been ...
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