January 5, 2008

The Golden Compass

goldencompassA fatally flawed compromise between a thoughtful adventure for adults and kids (Fellowship of the Ring?) and a simple kids' adventure story.

Director Chris Weitz (Down To Earth, About A Boy) is in way over his head at the helm of this production. The movie lacks any clear vision, and as a result, the end product feels like it's been pulled in three directions at once.

It's sad that this movie was produced by New Line Cinema, the same studio which took a chance on a Kiwi director (Peter Jackson) and the notoriously unfilmable fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings. Obviously, there's a big difference between Tolkein's fantasy epic and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman: Lord of the Rings has been beloved for generations, whereas the first book of His Dark Materials was published in 1995. I would argue that adapting The Golden Compass is a more commercial endeavor than Lord of the Rings. Pullman didn't know it when he was writing, but he created a very similar world to Harry Potter, but with a female lead: Lyra Belacqua is a 11-year-old orphan, in a world full of talking animals, witches and magic. Lyra has untapped power, and may be the fufillment of a powerful prophecy. Sound familiar? The Golden Compass novel is also brainy, allegorical, and exquisitely detailed. Weitz tries to jam in every detail (much like the first Harry Potter movie) instead of letting the story tell itself. Every detail is told to us, starting with the oldest trick in the Hollywood playbook: if the producers are worried that audiences won't "get" a movie, tack on a voice-over prologue which explains everything. It costs nothing to add this onto the front, and the producers have covered their asses. What can the director say in response? 'I don't want my audience to understand what's happening'? 'That prologue ruins my movie'? Not gonna happen! Besides all the exposition written into the dialogue, Lyra meets witch Serafina Pekkala, who drops in long enough to fill in all the blanks which Lyra needs. Apparently the producers decided all the fanciful names are too confusing, because each time Pekkala says the name of a person, place, or thing, we see a flash of that person, place, or thing onscreen, all directly cribbed from already-shot scenes we see later in the movie. The audience would not need all this hand-holding if the book were adapted better.

At 113 minutes, it feels at least 20 minutes too short. Each chapter of Lyra's adventure feels condensed and cropped. Like too many movies in the last decade, there's no opening title sequence. I don't recall ever before complaining that a movie needed a title sequence, but a 2 or 3 minute title sequence would be an ideal way to introduce us to this world which is a slight alternate to our own. Instead, we get a tacked-on crib sheet prologue, then Lyra is running around campus.

We meet all the principal characters so quickly, then move on to the next sequence, that only the actor's fine performances (and my familiarity with the characters in the book) are enough for me to be emotionally involved. Dakota Blue Richards is above average as the clever and brave Lyra. Nicole Kidman plays the cold b**** role all too well. Daniel Craig is barely in the movie, and Sam Elliott just plays a folksy cowboy who needs some barrettes. Ian McKellen is distracting as Iorek Byrnison: his performance was fine, but he really should stay away from fantasy roles from now on. Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee must have signed on for a trilogy, but instead, they get only two scenes in one movie. Jim Carter plays John Faa, king of the gyptians, but I remember him most fondly as Déjà Vu, a member of the French Underground in the Elvis war-movie parody Top Secret!

Sadly, we could see the budget meetings taking place onscreen: the film is frosted with long, sweeping effects shots, which are all wonderfully rendered. We watch Lyra and Mrs. Coulter soar over their alternate-reality London in a magnificent zeppelin; we see Lyra carried down a London avenue in a fantastical carriage; the gyptian's boat, a schooner crossed with a paddle-wheel riverboat, crosses the North Atlantic. They're all wonderful, but they were also too expensive to edit out of the movie. These traveling sequences would fit right into a expansive 150 minute epic, but they simply made us sad for the movie that could have been.

Speaking of missed opportunities, the movie fails to capture the magic of most of my favorite scenes in the book, but I have tried not to write this review as a lover of the book, because I know all too well, books are not movies, and vice versa.

Perhaps in one of the alternate Earths within the story, this film, at the hands of a strong, visionary director, could have captured the hearts and imaginations of adults and kids alike. I am glad I am only fond of the book, and not a devotee, or then I would be truly disappointed.

THEATER NOTES: I have a definite bias against non-stadium seating. Every whisper in the row behind you might as well be in your ear, and that's what keeps happening when I go to AMC Burlington. A teenage girl was behind me, with her Dad, and she whispered to Dad several times in the first 30 minutes. If she weren't with her father, I might have turned around and shushed her, but I'm not about to chastise someone's kid- there's too many crazed hockey dads in New England! I settled for cranking my head around a few times, making "huffy" noises, and shifting in my seat in an annoyed manner. After a half hour, she shut up: she either figured out I was pissed off, her dad told her to settle down, or she was too bored with the movie to say anything more.