The Golden Compass
This week, on “When Animals Attack”.

Theatrical Release Date: 12/07/2007
Director: Chris Weitz
Cast: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Freddie Highmore(voice), Ian McKellen(voice)

The hip way for studios to make family-friendly live-action films is to take an established children’s novel franchise (with a hint of more adult themes, especially as the series progresses) and throw piles of money into special effects and marketing. This can work if the creative team behind the project has both talent and a respect for the source material – as is the case with both the Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia franchises. Investors simply wrote some checks, waited a few years and were rewarded for being wealthy in the first place.

This isn’t always the case though, and for one reason or another, a film can have all the money in the world behind it and still fail to attract the masses in numbers high enough to make continuing the franchise viable to the fat cats with bulging wallets and Caribbean or German tax shelters.

Such is the apparent fate of “The Golden Compass”. Based on the popular “His Dark Materials” series by Philip Pullman, this particular fantasy world is a mix of old and new technology (though not quite steampunk), where simplistically delineated factions rule each corner of the globe.

What makes this world interesting is Pullman’s take on the human soul; on that intangible force that makes people feel complete. Instead of having a soul per se, people are connected and bound to their spirit animal. It’s an intimate link, where thoughts and feelings are shared – the connection is so strong that their very lives are intertwines … kill one and they both die.

Since it is an adapted children’s novel, the story revolves around young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards). A precocious and strong-willed girl, she is fascinated with the creatures and legends of the world and hopes to go on grand adventures to find out if all the stories she’s heard are true. Stumbling upon a nefarious plot by high ranking members of the ruling party which threaten not only her family but the balance of power in the world, she sets out to find a way to stop them.

I’m told that Richards’ take on the role of Lyra is a bit different from the books but not having read them myself (due to an allergy to books), I though the character worked quite well within the framework of the film. Her presence on-screen is impressive considering it was her feature-film debut and should sequels ever be given the green light (more on that later), I’d be very interested to see where the character’s arc is headed.

Of course, during the course of her journey, Lyra picks up help in the forms of Eva Green, Sam Elliot and a polar bear (which eerily sounded just like Ian McKellen ;) ). Each represent other factions of the world and while this thread is far from original, the mix of personalities and abilities each bring their own energy to the table.

Playing the foremost face of evil (take that however you want to), Nicole Kidman and her spiteful monkey soul mate try to stop Lyra and the gang from ruining all the work already set in motion. Elizabeth Edgemont couldn’t stand that Kidman didn’t dye her hair to match the character in the novel and pointed out that the book goes into detail on this subject so it’s not just her having an empty conniption about it. Seeing as doing so really isn’t difficult and would have added another thematic contrast of good vs. evil, I’m going to agree with Elizabeth and add it to the list of things that annoy me about Ms. Kidman. I will say, however, that casting her to be an evil, narcissistic show piece was a good choice and from an acting perspective, right in her wheelhouse.

The remaining story unfolds in a paint-by-numbers fashion but that’s okay, considering the nature of the source material and the intended audience. Interestingly, according to Elizabeth, the first book continues on after where the film ends and only time will tell if sequels are ever made to finish the story.

Of course, to get sequels made, there would probably have to be some shift in certain organized religions’ feelings towards this franchise. Some of them feel the books are an attack on their principles and teachings. I can understand that from one perspective, but living in a society that allows for freedom of speech and religion, filmmakers shouldn’t be forced to alter their creative choices to appease any one group (as long as legal guidelines are met). If you don’t like the message a film is presenting, don’t see the film. If you’re worried it will corrupt your children, try talking with your kids and explaining where the material differs from your belief system. The world of cinema isn’t a classroom; while there are lessons that can be gleaned from some of them, it is ultimately up to the audience to decide if they will internalize the words and images on-screen. But I digress.

I found “The Golden Compass” to be a competent fantasy adventure and give it a 3 out of 5. There isn’t much to it that’s drastically different from other fictional worlds but the combination of actors, characters and ideologies are interesting to me and I would like to see sequels come to life at some point but won’t be holding my breath in light of the bad PR surrounding the project. Only time will tell.