The Golden Compass isn’t bad. Chris Weitz’s current entry in the holiday movie sweepstakes pretty much does what it sets out to do—steal some of that J.K. Rowling magic and sprinkle it over Philip Pullman’s series of fantasy novels. When Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel saunters confidently onto the perfectly manicured grounds of Oxford’s Jordan College, you half expect to see Harry Potter and his Hogwarts cohorts rush out to greet him. Any scene featuring Craig acquires incidental sexual overtones; soon I had a parallel porno running in my head. Nasty thoughts about Mr. Bond aside, this is definitely a movie for the younger set, with some surprisingly good acting. As villain Marisa Coulter, Nicole Kidman taps the sadistic, nuanced hunger she displayed in To Die For. (It’s a shame she doesn’t play the baddie more often—like Matt Damon, Kidman shines when cast against type.) Sam Elliott with his “Aw, shucks, ma’am” attitude is always a delight; every tip of the hat from this low-key cowboy jolts the movie when the script begins to drag. And drag. And drag.
Which is a shame since the panoramic cinematography sweeps you up in its embrace. Like The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s a movie to enjoy getting lost inside. And like Coppola’s latest masterpiece Youth Without Youth, this may be a film that benefits from having a narrative that’s less than comprehensible. Unless you’ve read the Pullman novels—which I haven’t—there’s a lot to absorb in two hours: microscopic particles that unite the universe; Gyptians that help and Gobblers that kidnap; a formerly armored bear with a drinking problem (an alcoholic CGI character must be some kind of first). The script tries so hard to remain faithful to the novel, through endless explanation that borders on dissertation, that it gets in the way of the dream it’s trying to create. There are just too many words. (After all, did we really need subtitles reading, “Stop the children!” and “Kill the bear”? Yeah, I kinda got that from the visuals.) The dialogue is an endless Q&A (“Why did you help me?” “You see, years ago…” “What is it?” “It’s a golden compass.” “What does it do?” “Well, it…”) I’m not sure children need a heavy-handed, mathematical analysis when there are so many mutating creatures to watch.
If Weitz had put aside his loyalty to the author—if he hadn’t tried so hard to stick to facts and make the film “be” the book—he might have created something distinctive enough to rise above the inevitable comparisons. “Don’t grasp at the answer,” one character tells the young heroine Lyra. “Hold the question in your mind lightly—like it’s alive.” I wish the filmmaker had taken this advice to heart; a lighter touch could have done wonders. From the British-styled pseudo-royalty costumes to the CGI “daemons” who act as companions/alter egos, every element in this fantasy is perfectly coordinated; watching it is like observing a fine-tuned army engaged in drills. Strangely, the CGI is more persuasive when there’s less action. There’s only so long one can watch huge clumsy bears mimic WWE smack-downs and take Lawrence of Arabia-type sojourns before “Camelot!” “It’s only a model” comes to mind. The filmmaking is faux-suspenseful, just safe enough not to scare the little ones, so it’s a shock when Weitz brings the volume down to near-stillness in a scene in which Lyra happens upon a building housing kidnapped children. The tone turns Kubrick-surreal, the set design as familiar/alien and disconcerting as the 2001 Jupiter spacecraft. The Golden Compass should have been more than just a gorgeous Magic 8-Ball. It should have been the ultimate trip.