I couldn’t help but ponder, the morning after The Golden Compass screening, whether a completely animated adaptation of the revered Philip Pullman novel — first in the His Dark Materials series — might not have been the way to go. Pixar, maybe. (Not that New Line Cinema, purveyor of almost all things fantasy these days, would have let the project out of their greedy, Gollum-like grip.)
The trouble is that each of the human characters in Compass’s parallel universe is accompanied by a daemon, an animal companion that externally houses the soul. So, short of tying a piece of meat to Daniel Craig to entice a real-live leopard to follow him around (not that you’d need to), the filmmakers — led uncannily by American Pie director Chris Weitz — turned to a mixture of CGI and live-action. This decision is logical, because the daemons are no mere lackluster lapdogs — they speak and interact, and even have the ability to change form. The animated incarnations of these beings are so colorful, however, that they kind of put the film’s warm-blooded performers, sleepwalking through their roles, to shame. (Sadly, though, the daemons are not realistic enough to overwhelm the disbelief that human and daemon are existing in the same plane.)
The Golden Compass — and I have not read the book, so please correct me if I’m wrong — does have scenes that would seem to beg for cinematic treatment: a brawl between two armored polar bears, for one. (I don’t think PETA would have taken kindly to an actual bear fight `enough of them are dying of natural causes`; score two for necessary animation.) But the true captivator is the world that Pullman has created, of which the daemons and battling polar bears are only part. It is a world populated with brass telescope-like thingamabobs, piratey folk called gyptians, and ruled over — sort of — by a Catholic Church-approximating organization called the Magisterium.
In Compass, the Magisterium plans to hinder children from knowing “dust” (if only someone would do the same for me), a property akin to sin in their universe. To achieve this, they must sever children from their daemons, effectively removing their souls. Bone-chilling, isn’t it?
Among the children kidnapped for this operation is our young protagonist Lyra’s best friend, prompting Lyra to leave the safety of the Ivory Tower and join the mysterious, deceptively kind stranger Marisa Coulter on her northward journey. When we meet Mrs. Coulter, the camera is following behind her as she enters an immense dining hall. She is attempting, I think, some kind of femme-fatale swagger, but Kidman’s slight, stiff frame achieves nothing of the sort. (If I am not mistaken, this shot provoked laughter from another Current critic a few seats down from me.)
Lyra, a prophesied child, natch, and her daemon Pantalaimon (androgynously voiced by Freddie Highmore), escape the cruel, blond stick figure (Another Coulter come to mind?) Kidman turns out to be, and round up a motley crew including a prospector-ish pilot, an armored polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellan — I want one), a boatful of gyptians, and a witch or 50, to rescue the Magisterium’s soon to be, if not already soulless children.
This is surely dark material but the film’s irritating, too-good-to-be-true lighting, along with its Coca-Cola holiday bears, undermines everything sinister and disturbing not already exorcised from The Golden Compass in adaptation. And if no one is going to attempt anything like acting here (like, I don’t know, try making an interesting performance choice now and then AWARD-WINNING THESPIANS), well then I say leave it to the real talent. At Pixar. •
The Golden Compass
Dir. Chris Weitz, writ. Weitz, Philip Pullman (novel);
feat. Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee (PG-13)