Children’s fantasy films are a dime a dozen. Precedence for high moral, or at least ideological, content can be found at least as far back as Disney’s Snow White, and has provided an onslaught of films in the same format ever since. When the movie industry found that the classic fable/fairy tale gold mine was running dry for the profitable movie translations, it happened to strike it rich by capitalizing on the power of the modern myth. This trend brought The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to screen, as well as part of The Chronicles of Narnia. These translated well into the format that had been provided: good fights evil, evil gains ground, but good wins miraculously. There’s a transparency in purpose there. There are details, but they are often are trapped inside the characters: Frodo doesn’t know if he can fight the power of the ring forever; Harry Potter resents the unfair leanings of the wizard world expectations; Edward succumbs to the White Witch’s temptations. While this template has succeeded for many blockbusters in the past, it is rather old, stale, and anachronistic for the forward-thinking times we live in.

The Golden Compass finds a niche somewhere between the obvious fights of good and evil and the private lives of each of its characters. The viewer is brought in on a whirlwind tour of the world’s elements, including something called “dust”, the manifestation of a person’s soul outside of her body in animal form (called a “daemon”) the peoples of the world, and the nature of the Magisterium, an organization comparable to theocratic regime. The film doesn’t slow down, either. The film then focuses on Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a little girl who lives at Jordan College, where she was left under the care of the scholars by her Uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig). Acting on a dare by her Gyptian playmates, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon (Freddie Highmore) sneak into a scholar conference room. Almost caught, she stows away in a closet and overhears Uncle Asriel’s proposal to the college to fund his expedition to understand the phenomenon of dust. Soon after he leaves the college, the mysterious Ms. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), complete with her golden monkey daemon, comes to Jordan College and hints very strongly that Lyra’s caretakers allow her to come to the North. Before Lyra leaves, she is given the alethiometer, a device that can tell the truth if someone knows how to read it. Within the first few minutes of the film, the audience has been swept away into a strange parallel universe, in which a girl must take a strange journey and rely on a strange device for strange reasons, which are not entirely clear – if the viewer hasn’t read the books.

This is where the film begins to break down. The first five minutes of the movie are filled with a lot of information that is extremely important to the rest of the film, but it does it in a way that is more efficient than practical. There was a sense of a huge rush – either to get the story underway or to get the details out of the way for those who had already read the books. The whole movie is under two hours, and there is a sense that this does an injustice to the story. The plot points whiz by (blinking not advised). It’s a hard knock for a book with so many rich characters and details. The movie asks some very important questions and can be provocative for younger and older minds alike, but its streamlined story armed with a bit too much violence can confuse the underlying questions by not allowing enough time to process what exactly is going on.

But for all of that, the movie provides for some excellent visuals and acting. The locales are gorgeous and are faithful to Pullman’s descriptions. The CG is amazing as well, on everything from the polar bears down the constantly shifting forms of Pantalaimon. However, the actors are even more stunning. Nicole Kidman embodies the bizarre emotions and mannerisms of Ms. Coulter perfectly, and Daniel Craig is an appropriately aloof figure. Ian McKellen‘s voice coming from the mouth of a polar bear is an odd but delightful experience, and Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby and Kathy Bates as his daemon Hester are fun additions and make a very diverse cast. By far, the greatest, most important performance is by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards. In her first acting experience ever, she pulls off the perfect Lyra, a clever brat who questions authority at every opportunity.

The Golden Compass as a film is not a revolution to the genre of children’s fantasy novels, but it can potentially change how directors feel about the genre in the future. Instead of putting the good guys, the bad guys, and the moral of the story in big flashing letters that children can supposedly handle, perhaps directors and writers will see children as complicated subjects who don’t need the constant coddling of the step-by-step explanation, the comfort of neat-n-tidy endings, and the simplicity of black-and-white characters.

As for the controversy surrounding the films, there is (unfortunately) little reason to be worried. Anticipating the religious backlash to some of the book’s darker themes, the director/screenwriter Chris Weitz decided it best to handle the situation delicately and edited out a lot of the more open and obvious theological and religious questions. Instead, the film not only cuts out part of the book’s original premise, but also, ironically, proves it correct. As a long time fan of the series, it’s a tough blow to the genius of Pullman’s works, and maybe the single largest detriment for long-time book lovers. Overall, the movie is worth seeing – if only as a segue to the reportedly more faithful sequel The Subtle Knife.

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