The Golden Compass is an utterly unconvincing and un-extraordinary film that manages something that many films can't: it is completely hastened in its narrative, yet is thoroughly dragging in its execution. It rips through its 113-minute running time, yet never manages to make anything - character, plot point or theme - even remotely interesting. It's a rough draft of a film that contains within itself the vestiges of something truly epic that never makes it to the screen.
The epic I am talking about is, of course, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy of books. The post Harry Potter world has seen teenage fantasy fiction crop up like mushroom on wet trees, but this series stands tall among them as being an emotional and gut-wrenching tale; a graphic, mature, coming-of-age story that pulls no punches in its criticism of The Church.
Fans of the books will be disappointed to find that the film barely covers the deep thematic undertones of the books, and never gives any of their beloved character any depth, while people who haven't read them will be completely confused as they won't have any idea why half of the things that happen in the film are there at all. This is in part also the fault of a studio decision that has ended in the film's ending being removed, making it utterly limp.
Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan who lives in Oxford, though this is an alternate world to ours, where people's souls are manifested as an external living being called a daemon. These daemons are shape changing when they are children but take the form of their master's personality as an animal as they grow in age. Lyra is under the care of her derring-do uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), but when he leaves Oxford for his experiments, she becomes an understudy to a rich socialite Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman).
Children in her town are being kidnapped by a mysterious band of people, and she soon finds out that Mrs. Coulter is behind the shadowy people. Since she is one of those kids being prophesized about in films like these, she heads north to find her uncle, and takes the help of friends like the giant armor-wearing polar bear Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen) and aeronaut cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot).
As thrilling as this sounds, the film just introduces all this in less time that it would take you to buy popcorn. That is the inherent problem of the movie - it just keeps zipping from point to point without any gravitas or background to the characters or the actual narrative pacing. The result? When the final tidal wave of CGI is unleashed upon you, you are beyond giving two s#%ts.
The anti-Christianity tones of the books have been cut to placate the radical movie watchers, but to make it more palatable, I assume, for the young audiences, everything else of consequence that makes the book mature has been removed. The Golden Compass (known as Northern Lights in India) concludes with an event that shakes you. It is tragic, powerful, heart-breaking, and not in the least justified as a happy ending, but it is nevertheless something that blows us apart. The film removes this neatly, to have some sort of a happy ending - only, it is so abrupt and limp it serves more as a WTF moment.
There are some great moments for the fans when we see the many of the favorite characters so lovingly realized on screen. But for the rest of the people who have paid for the entry ticket, the film talks a lot about the themes of the books, but doesn't actually show anything, ending up making very little sense.
You know what is even crazier? The final moments of the film that were cut off were a victim of a haphazard mad decision at the last moment, because it makes an appearance in the videogame adaptation. This film was a Christmas release in the US, and the fact that the anti-Christian Church themes of the film were removed makes complete sense from a business point of view, but leaving the ending halfway through so that everyone leaves the theater happy-happy-joy-joy is just stupid.
The well-done CGI is also a victim of the small thinking of the studios. So much money has been spent on the tiniest of details, but the actual epic scope of a film such as this is missing. For a movie this well-made technically, it is almost criminal that the actual content is so hollow.
Sigh. If you do decide to watch this, however, at least you will be treated to an ever-beautiful Nicole Kidman and a surprisingly effective Daniel Craig giving very good performances, and a little child (Richards) overpowering that with her sheer brilliance in screen presence.