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I've never read The Golden Compass or any of the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. So like Beowulf, but unlike LOTR, I had no biases going into this new movie. It didn't help. The Golden Compass may be wonderful for its fans but to me it was a big bore. Most of the movie consists of people explaining what's going on rather than just showing us through good writing and good direction. But the explanations are wasted on the fans and don't help the rest of us. The Golden Compass is like the worst of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien mixed together with a little shamanism and a pinch of Charles Dickens. You may fall asleep while I'm summarizing the plot, but here goes. A little girl (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan of course, dreams of adventure. She seems to live in one of the colleges at Oxford University, where she is watched over by her mysterious uncle (Daniel Craig). Soon she is whisked off to London by a very serious and mysterious Marilyn Monroe look-alike (Nicole Kidman), but not before she is given a mysterious golden compass. I think you are getting the idea. The little girl is living in a mysterious world. J.K. Rowling created a separate wizard's world right alongside the real world. C.S. Lewis had his kids go through a wardrobe to their new world. Tolkien's world was in the distant past. But Philip Pullman just re-imagines this world, with travel by balloons and dirigibles, and each person having a talking animal companion to help them along and witches, of course. Let's just say that it all remains mysterious to me.
Kidman represents the evil Magisterium which is a bunch of religious nut jobs in the book, but who are just nutjobs in the movie. The books are all about killing God, which is way too controversial for Americans, so they are toning it down for the movie. The movie ends before the end of the first book of the series in order to avoid a long atheist discussion by Craig. But then Harry Potter is considered to be Satanic in certain enlightened parts of this great country. Anyway, when I say movie, I mean movies. As with Lewis, Tolkien and Rowling, this will be a series of movies if it makes enough money. As you can see, I've already gotten tired of explaining the plot of The Golden Compass. There's lots of bears wearing armor, and flying witches (Eva Green et al.), and a cowboy with a hot air balloon (Sam Elliott), and a bunch of gypsies who have the imaginative name, Gyptians, and even a Dickensian boarding school hidden in the Arctic.
I read a story about the The Golden Compass in the NY Times which claimed that it was "brainier and better written" than Harry Potter. Like I said, I haven't read the books, but the movie is neither brainier nor better written. The strength of Harry Potter, which also the story of an orphan thrust into a magical world, is in its characters. Rowling created some kids that you grow to care about as they grow up. And she created an internally consistent yet very entertaining wizard world. There is nothing as imaginative as "Platform 9 3/4" in The Golden Compass. The climax of The Golden Compass is a fight between two talking bears. I didn't care who won or why.
The Golden Compass was directed by Chris Weitz, whose previous movies are About a Boy and American Pie. I love About a Boy. It's great, but I think that Weitz was overwhelmed directing by The Golden Compass which is a Peter Jackson-esqe, $180 million, special effects extravaganza. Weitz actually quit halfway through but came back to finish the film. The effects are good but since every movie has good effects nowadays, you need more than that to hold an audience. The film itself just plods along. The little girl played by Dakota Blue Richards (her real name if you can believe it) is quite good but she has to stand around while everyone she meets explains in great detail what's going on. Then there's the talking animals. I hate talking animals. Ok, I liked Babe, but in general, I hate talking animals. These companions (basically shamanic power animals) are there all the time, talking to their humans. The rest of the cast is star studded, although mostly in small roles that maybe get bigger in part II. Like Harry Potter, they have employed legions of British actors to be in the film (Tom Courtenay, Christopher Lee, Derek Jacobi) or be voices for the many animal characters (Ian McShane, Kristin Scott Thomas, Freddy Highmore, Ian McKellen). Daniel Craig is in about three scenes before he disappears for the rest of the movie. Kidman is around quite a bit but apparently decided to play her part without moving her face. Many reviews for The Golden Compass have used the word, "botox." One brief refreshing moment is provided by Sam Elliott who, as usual, isn't taking things too seriously. He's the only one having a good time in The Golden Compass.
However, the presence of Christopher Lee may be enough to ensure that The Golden Compass will be a mega-hit. After an illustrious 40 year career, mostly spent making low-budget horror flicks, in the last six years, he has appeared in six big budget movies, which have grossed over $200 million each at the US Box office (the three LOTR movies, two of the new Star Wars movies and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory). Try and fight the "Lee Effect." Stay home and watch a Harry Potter movie.