I look forward to ambitious fantasy epics such as "The Golden Compass," the adaptation of the first book of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.
If a fantasy movie is sweet, we can bank on whiling away a couple hours of this dreary existence on their sequel next year. Even if they blow, they're good for at least a wild scene or three, like in this one when two armored polar bears whale the hell out of each other, or when Sam Elliott (whose mustache has probably killed more men than the dinosaurs) boats people around on his zeppelin.
That could be a recipe for great times. It could also quite easily be a recipe for incredibly stupid times that make you want to reach out and punch someone. With this movie, it's neither.
In a parallel world where, among other small differences, people's souls are externalized in the form of talking animals called daemons, Daniel Craig learns about a curious Dust that's appeared at the north pole which seems to be coming from other planes of existence. He wants to go check this crazy stuff out (who wouldn't! Dust!), but meets resistance from the Magisterium, the dogmatic rulers of their world who believe the Dust could undermine their teachings.
Craig's niece, Dakota Blue Richards, wants to go up north, too, and finds an unlikely ally in Magisterium agent Nicole Kidman. Along the way, Richards discovers Kidman's in league with the mysterious group that's been kidnapping children -- including two of Richards' friends -- and escapes from Kidman and her evil golden monkey, vowing to rescue her friends from the prison that's also up there at the north.
The bulk of the rest of the movie introduces the aforementioned talking bears, sky cowboys and a king's assload of other dudes with a stake in the matter -- standard fare such as flying witches and pirate-gypsies, not to mention everyone's daemon-animal counterpart. I can count all the way to 12, 15 if I've had some coffee, but I lost count of all the people being introduced around halfway through.
Yet "The Golden Compass" isn't dragged down because it's got too many characters or several Bibles worth of backstory to set up, it's that even with a full two hours of film to work with, few of the characters are given enough screen time to become more than archetypes. Never thought a bear in full barding who rules a kingdom of other bears who smith their own armor could feel like a cliche? Well, me neither, but life is full of surprises.
Keeping track of who's where and what they're doing isn't made any easier by a rushed, action-heavy plot that seems to forget about its side characters whenever they're offscreen. I'm no movie-maker-man, but a stronger editing structure would have helped rein in the movie's many threads.
Pullman's trilogy is notorious for its down-with-religion stance, which makes it weird that it's even seeing the light of day as a new franchise, the first of which had a budget of $200 million. If there was much iconoclasm in the first book, its adaptation appears to have been neutered until we're left with a vague anti-bossing-people-around sentiment that could conceivably be applied to something as specific as Christianity if you squint a little and have heard about the silly boycotts but is hardly worth getting bothered about.
For all this weakness, "The Golden Compass" is hardly a pile of garbage. It looks great, especially the CG daemons, which are almost indistinguishable from real animals. The sets are awfully neat, too, and though it's no "Lord of the Rings," its action sequences are gripping and exciting. Richards really fills out her role as a smart and resourceful troublemaker. The supporting cast is excellent in its limited roles -- Elliott, Ian McKellan as the voice of the lead bear, smaller turns by Christopher Lee, Ian McShane, and Kathy Bates.
But nobody but Richards' character has that much going for them, leaving us with a cool-looking world full of weirdos doing things that look strange but feel familiar. Maybe that's a case of First Epic Movie-itis, where so much time and space has to be devoted to establishing this alternate universe and its plot that there's not much left for personality.
It is promising that there was no moment when I thought "Damn, that part bit the big one" or laughed contemptuousl and was beaten for it by my fellow movie-goers. Writer/director Chris Weitz never really does anything wrong. But so far his vision, for however unique it looks, hasn't captured the spark that's made Pullman's originals such a success.