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I have thought that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy would make some very interesting films ever since I read them almost a decade ago. The fantasy and utter intrigue that they instilled in me never left my consciousness. When I heard that American Pie director Chris Weitz would be helming it, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’ve seen many movies in my time to know that past work means often little when it comes to future endeavors, but I admit to enjoying the Pie movies as well as loving his third film About a Boy. With a movie like The Golden Compass, it will generally come down to the special effects and story to decide how much of a success it will be. I credit the director for taking it upon himself to adapt the story and get some wonderful talent involved. It is just unfortunate that New Line was unable to put up the money to do the trilogy all together much like their last foray into magical worlds. I say this, not because this film fails—I actually think it does quite well at telling the novel’s story—but because we may never see another in the series made.

Rarely does a movie open up with close to $30 million, $15 million more than second place at the box office, and be deemed a failure. The budget here is just too steep, and although it is gorgeous to view, that money was well spent, the recouping process may be too much to conquer for subsequent entries. As a result, the film just can’t stand up by itself. Without even the misguided decision to hold off the dark end of the book, (although it has been filmed), in order to begin a hopeful second installment, this entry really doesn’t go anywhere except for delivering exposition and character development. The novel sets up the world that is falling apart around our heroine Lyra in order for her to make the leap into parallel universes and find a way to save her people. As a result, we have two hours crammed with so many characters and so much backstory that it feels very daunting at times. I myself was fine with it, but I read the story previously. If you are unfamiliar with the tale, I can see frustration setting in quickly and never dissipating. It is a real shame because it was a good start that may never payoff with a finish.

As a condensed adaptation, I have to give all involved a lot of credit. Everything that you need is included and it all makes sense. To a novice of this parallel earth, I would suggest a second viewing to comprehend it all, but it is in fact all there. Resulting from the almost Cliff Notes-like speed, there are many actors that receive very small screen allotments. Daniel Craig, as Lord Asriel, is virtually nonexistent except in spirit and name. By not keeping the end intact, the audience never gets the payoff as to what the man is truly capable and willing to do. This is too bad because the build up is sufficient to have created some real fireworks at the end, maybe even making those a tad lukewarm overall to anticipate what might happen next. Nicole Kidman is adequate—I hate to beat a dead horse, but she just hasn’t been the beauty or talent she was two years ago or more, and it really hurts my viewing of her—but almost too vague in her role. She is the orchestrator of what is happening with the Magisterium, but that whole subplot kind of takes a back seat to Lyra’s joining of her ragtag group of warriors.

A lot of the acting is superior in form, however. I think Eva Green is brilliant casting as the witch Serafina Pekkala, although her role is chopped to almost five total minutes on screen, and who could argue with the great voices of Ian McKellen and Ian McShane as the Ice Bears? It is Sam Elliott, though, that shows he still has the stuff to be successful. You don’t see him much anymore, but his Scoresby is flawless. Last but not least is newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as our lead. For a first-timer, she is a joy, bringing to life the fearlessness and curiosity that allows her role to be as uniquely heroic as she is. I’d love to see what she does in the next two films.

Rounding out the film as a whole are some nice special effects—the Alethiometer is gorgeous, the disintegrating daemons upon their host’s death into “dust” well-done, and the environments beautiful to behold. Also, I guess I couldn’t really speak of the film without at least a mention of the controversy surrounding the author Pullman’s atheism. I don’t quite remember it when reading, but upon viewing here, it is kind of prevalent. Not atheism in general, but a mirroring of a church-like establishment trying to force its ideals on society for its own means. Heck, that is what the Catholic Church does whether you like it or not. Does that mean it teaches a belief that God does not exist? No. All it does is show that man is corruptible and sometimes it takes a strong being to set things right. That being here is young Lyra Belacqua, using technology sure, (for all you Darwinists out there), but also an inherent ability to read symbols and be a part of a long held prophecy. Despite that prophecy being held by witches (pagans maybe?) it is something that shows a higher form’s existence. Let your children experience life and other ways of thinking; nothing here says God is dead, it just shows that beliefs can be individually manifested. Faith is a powerful thing that exists whether you are a member of an organization or not.

The Golden Compass 7/10

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photography:
[1] Dakota Blue Richards stars as “Lyra” in New Line Cinema’s release of Chris Weitz’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Copyright © New Line Cinema. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Daniel Craig stars as “Lord Asriel” in New Line Cinema’s release of Chris Weitz’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham/New Line Cinema. Copyright © New Line Cinema. All Rights Reserved.

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