Like many fantasy adventures before it, The Golden Compass—the opening entry in what New Line hopes will be a lucrative franchise based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels—takes a page or three from The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t, however, to say that the film is entirely modeled after J.R.R. Tolkien’s opus, since it also finds time to crib from other iconic sources as well, including Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia. This may be inevitable given the pervasive shadow cast by those works on the fantasy fiction realm, but it nonetheless drags this would-be blockbuster down to the depths of dullness, its lavish special effects and mouthfuls of strange-sounding names incapable of masking every scenario’s familiarity and the more dispiriting reality that this tale is merely the introductory (and thus resolution-devoid) chapter of a much larger saga. Consider my interest in subsequent installments un-piqued, as The Golden Compass barely generates even a ripple of involvement in its hustle and bustle, which concerns a spunky young orphan named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) who lives in a parallel universe to our own where souls take the form of external animal companions (known as daemons), and who finds herself swept up in a great quest upon receiving a precious truth-telling device known as the Alethiometer (a.k.a. the Golden Compass).
Desperate to retain as many of his source material’s details as possible, writer-director Chris Weitz crams his story full of magical terms and concepts with a rapidity that leaves things confusing and thus meaningless, his film’s breathless pace allowing for none of the gradual narrative build-up (or character establishment) that might give the later, cataclysmic events any sense of import. His featureless and forgettable action sequences are what one might expect from the man behind American Pie and About a Boy, but he does know how to shoot his leading lady, Nicole Kidman, whose nefarious Marisa Coulter proves a devilishly smiling Darth Vader decked out in gold gowns. Unlike Daniel Craig, who’s stored away on the periphery for use in preordained sequels, Kidman gets ample opportunity to strut about in all her glamorously evil glory, and a scene in which she smacks her baboon daemon—and then coddles the creature with entreaties of love—amusingly casts the intolerant (and aptly named) Coulter as a better-dressed version of Margot at the Wedding’s titular mommy dearest. Even Kidman’s ravishing villainess, though, plays second fiddle to the film’s make-believe gibberish, which focuses most intently on the plight of Iorek Byrnison, an exiled warrior polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) who does little other than drink whiskey, fight, and roar in countless close-ups.
As a fellow critic lamented afterward, the whole shebang is just a prolonged setup for a bear fight, which I guess should please those who like to see anthropomorphic CG animals duke it out in hand-to-hand combat. Anyone hungry for drama fashioned with wit, depth, and enchanting magic, however, will have to look elsewhere, as The Golden Compass exhibits a fervent desire to avoid subtext at any cost, a goal that extends to its treatment of the novel’s much-discussed anti-Christianity allegory. In order to appease devout viewers who’ve complained about the adaptation’s critique of their faith-based institutions, Weitz and company have taken great pains to neuter their material of any specific denominational iconography. Yet such a tack is futile, because Pullman’s central metaphor remains intact enough to anger fundamentalists—the repressive ruling body known as the Magisterium is still a thinly veiled stand-in for the church, what with its cathedral-ish headquarters and its members’ priestly robes and talk of “heretic.” But it’s also, ultimately, an asinine approach because, by stripping this anti-religion critique of any overt specificity, the filmmakers wind up watering down the only weighty thematic substance that might have made the film worth watching in the first place.