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Eternal salvation is more likely for abortionists and nun-rapists than for anyone who dares buy a ticket for The Golden Compass, judging by the Christian right’s pre-release indignation over the film. Adapted from the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the movie has been denounced, sight-unseen, as immoral, subversive, and (gulp) humanist. Perhaps subsequent episodes will introduce material worthy of such outrage, but Chapter 1 is bland and unsurprising, if generally well-made. With its duplicitous adults, quaint campus setting, animated talking animals, and mix of Victorian and futuristic technology, the film plays like Harriet Potter and Steamboy Go to Narnia.
The story opens in a place that looks generally like many children’s fantasy-tale settings, and specifically like Oxford University. Yet Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives in a universe that is not ours. In her world, people have “daemons,” who appear to be animal companions but in fact are aspects of the humans’ own psyches. Adults’ daemons take consistent forms, so Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), is always accompanied by a snow leopard. But prepubescents don’t have fixed identities, so Lyra’s Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore) can switch from ermine to cat to butterfly and so on.
If Lyra lacks a lightning-bolt scar, she still clearly has a special destiny. That may be why Asriel gives her the last surviving alethiometer (aka the golden compass). Or why the flirtatiously menacing Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), whose daemon is one mean monkey, seeks custody of the girl. Both Asriel and Marisa are headed to the frozen north, albeit with different agendas. When Lyra learns that the Gobblers (not turkeys, but sort of goblins) have nabbed her pal Roger (Ben Walker), she also decides to travel in that direction. (At least she doesn’t take the Polar Express.) Her journey involves the seafaring Gyptians, good-witch-with-a-bad-accent Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), crusty cowboy “aeronaut” Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and deposed polar-bear king Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). Most of these characters barely register, as American Anglophile writer-director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) compresses the hefty book into roughly 100 minutes—not counting the voluminous animator credits.
Those animators did exceptional work, reaching a new standard for integrating live actors with CGI creatures. The movements and expression of the small animals are especially impressive; the critters look a lot more alive than the digitized humans of Beowulf. If the bigger beasts are less convincing, it’s largely because such actions as donning armor and battling for the throne could not be made to appear naturalistic. Yet while Pantalaimon is consistently interesting to watch, most of the humans are a little dull. The few hints at controversy—references to “heresy” and “free will” suggest parallels between Lyra’s adversaries and the Roman Catholic Church—are not enough to counter The Golden Compass’ overwhelming sense of familiarity.
One major hindrance is that bane of so many kiddie entertainments: twinkly music (in this case by Alexandre Desplat) that makes the movie sound like a Wal-Mart ad for Santa Claus PJs. But the central problem is that, stripped of Pullman’s language, the saga’s details seem either overly obvious or frustratingly vague. The golden compass itself, for example, allows its operator to “see things as they are.” If that sounds metaphysical, in the movie the device operates like a Ouija board and dispenses the kind of information available from a car’s OnStar system. No doubt the makers of The Golden Compass intentionally downplayed the novel’s controversies; but they also diluted its uncanny appeal.