The Golden Compass is a passable children’s fantasy-adventure, with a plucky heroine and some mystical mumbo-jumbo. What interested me most in it, though, had less to do with what was on screen that what went on behind it. It is based on a series of books by Philip Pullman, which I have not read. But I do know that Pullman is a fervent atheist. Apparently the books have an underlying message that children should think for themselves, and not succumb to theocratic authority.
The film has pretty much that same message. Only a harebrained zealot would interpret anything in the film that suggests that atheism is the best team to join. However, harebrained zealots are everywhere, and one of the worst is William Donohue, head of the U.S.’s Catholic League. Even though he admits there is nothing objectionable in the film, Donahue has encouraged a boycott by Catholics, in case children should see the film and want to read the books, and thus they will be swayed to the dark side. This makes me mad on so many levels I just want to spit. First of all, atheism, like any religious belief, is not like influenza–exposure doesn’t lead to being indoctrinated. Second of all, if I was religious, and I had a child, I would think that exposing that child to all of the world’s religious beliefs would be a good thing, because if they did end up following the religion I would hope they would they would do it out of a personal faith, not because they were brought up with blinders and brainwashed. And perhaps most objectionable, I don’t think Donahue would dare try this if the books had a positive Judaic message, or Hindu, or even Muslim. Only atheists can be so openly and cravenly insulted.
But enough about nitwits like William Donohue. What about the film? Well, as I said, it’s passable fare. There seem to be a lot of this type of film these days (during the previews I saw trailers for a few more, and they all seem to be blending into one film). It doesn’t have the spark of the Harry Potter films, but is about as good as Chronicles of Narnia.
It begins with a half-hour of rather clunky exposition. We are told that this is a parallel universe to our own. In this particular universe, the soul does not reside within the body, but in a daemon–an animal that accompanies people where ever they go (sort of like a witch’s familiar). Seeing all those animals walking about made me wonder whether people regularly carried plastic bags to clean up after them, or maybe CGI animals don’t defecate?
Anyway, there’s more stuff about “dust,” not the stuff under your bed but some kind of matter that could be proof of other worlds, which the Magisterium, a church-like organization that rules everything, thinks is heresy. Daniel Craig plays a professor who wants to prove the existence of other worlds, and his plucky niece, Lyra, played by Dakota Blue Richards, is some sort of gifted child who is the only person who can read what is called an elithiometer (hope I have the spelling right), or the titular compass, which when asked a question gives one the truth (truth and religion don’t go very well together).
Little Lyra catches the eye of Mrs. Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman (the delicious irony of the villainess sharing a name with perhaps the most despicable female public figure in the U.S. is pretty damn sweet), who is some sort of agent for the Magisterium. Lyra escapes her though, and endeavors to find where missing children have been taken. All of this was starting to make my head hurt, and reminded me of numerous other films, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (missing children) to Pinocchio (the daemons are sort of like Jiminy Cricket) to Mary Poppins (little Dakota uses an accent that is very reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke as Burt the chimney-sweep).
The film gets a needed lift at about the hour mark when two characters arrive–Sam Elliott as Scoresby, a kind of Wild West figure, and a polar bear named Iorek Byrnison, voiced by Ian McKellen. A word of advice to any filmmaker–if you want to improve your film, have Sam Elliott in your cast. He instantly picked things up with his performance. Normally I think a good rule is that any film with talking CGI animals is bad, but I really dug Iorek. He’s a washed up warrior, working odd jobs for whiskey, when Lyra employs him as her bodyguard. He ends up battling the king of the ice bears (voiced by Ian McShane) in a fight that was surprisingly exciting.
The ending resolved a few things but left open the obvious call for a sequel, which may or may not come, depending on box office. There’s a lot of ridiculous stuff in this film (pity Eva Green, who stars as a witch with some of the most ponderous lines of dialogue I’ve heard in many a moon) but enough to like that if a sequel were made, I’d be there, especially if Iorek the ice bear returns.