December 6, 2007

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The Golden Compass (PG-13)
A little girl has only her British sass, an armored bear, a sharp-shooting balloon-o-naut and a band of “Gyptians” to help her fight an authoritarian government and Nicole Kidman, its silkily evil representative, in The Golden Compass, a quite violent, not so much for kids tale of a magical world and its fascist overlords.

I should say, though, that as evil as they try to make Nicole Kidman here, she’s not nearly as evil as the “what, me?” author in Margot at the Wedding.

Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is a precocious young girl who has fun playing with the servants’ children and resisting education at a tony British college. As with all humans in this universe, Lyra has a daemon, a sort of helper animal that is an external manifestation of her soul, who is with her at all times. Hers, Pan (Freddie Highmore), still changes shape, a common trait of the daemons of young children, and is sometimes a cat, sometimes a bird, sometimes a mouse. Lyra is itching for adventure and after her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), heads north in search of Dust (the tale’s magical particles that might lead the way to parallel worlds and which the ruling Magisterium forbids discussion of) but doesn’t take her, Lyra leaps at a chance to go north with the coincidentally named Mrs. Coulter (Kidman). Coulter is nearly as serpentine as Angelina Jolie’s Grendel’s mother and so openly evil that even in the middle of being showered with gifts Lyra realizes that something’s not right with Coulter and her daemon, a mean orange monkey. When Coulter gets all grabby with Lyra’s Alethiometer (the golden compass of the title — a big pocket-watch looking thing that can “tell the truth” about any question Lyra asks it), Lyra runs away and soon finds herself in the company of the Gyptians, a group of seafarers are who are also headed north into the Arctic in search of some missing children (some of whom are Lyra’s friends). Once the journey hits land, Lyra meets and is helped by an armored bear (Ian McKellen), the cowboy-like Lee (Sam Elliott) and the head of the witches, Serafina (Eva Green). Lyra’s immediate goal is to save her friends but also to find and save her uncle and to stop the horrible experiments that the Magisterium is conducting in an attempt to keep children from the evils of skepticism and free will.

That some Catholic groups have decided to have a problem with this movie seems to say more about what they themselves think about the church than what the movie has to say about the Catholic Church or religion in general. (The book, which I haven’t read, is more explicit in its criticisms of organized religion, according to media reports.) I suppose you could read the Magisterium as the Vatican and “Dust” as science. But you could also read the Magisterium as Nazi Germany (with its medical pursuit of an ideal population) and Dust as the forces of free thought. Or maybe the Magisterium represents some cartel of The Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia fans who have left no room for diversity in the fantasy genre.

Whoever the Magisterium is supposed to be, they are definitely scary and the things they do have violent overtones, from the army guarding the secret lab to the experiments that go on inside. I wouldn’t recommend this movie for kids whose age is in the single digits and probably not for anyone still in elementary school. People are killed in battle and we see their little animal partners snuffed out with a poof. Also, the main characters — including the children — are frequently in peril, with threats of death or daemon amputation far more frightening that the standard children’s movie black-hat behavior.

For all that the movie is able to gin up real fear, it doesn’t do such a great job with real adventure — strange considering how well the artistic elements are used. The scampering daemons, the lumbering bears, the vast armies, the flying witches — all the movie’s CGI elements are fairly well integrated with its live-action parts. It just doesn’t add up to much; the story feels half baked and after the movie’s big set-piece battle I still found myself waiting for a climax. More often than not, the movie — which is really no sillier than Narnia and no more intricate than Rings — just left me cold and kind of bored. What’s next, I found myself wondering, even when I realized that there probably wasn’t too much left.

David Chase would appreciate the abruptness with which this movie ends. It’s a hasty paragraph of expositional dialogue (consisting of a laundry list of tasks left to be done and a reminder of which characters will be around to lend a hand) and then nothing, not even the “to be continued” that is so very implicit. According to a recent New York Times story, the movie represents slightly more than two thirds of the first book in a trilogy (His Dark Materials is the name of the series). That means there are at least two, potentially three movies left (should any be made after this). If this franchise is truly aiming for the family fantasy crowd that its young lead suggests, here’s hoping the next movie cools the fear factor and heats up the action. C+

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence. Written and directed by Chris Weitz (from the novel by Philip Pullman), The Golden Compass is an hour and 54 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, Dec. 7. The movie is distributed by New Line Cinema.