The Golden Compass is a film that seems as if it’s going to build up to something fantastic, but fizzles out far before it reaches that point. Ending on a note that will only satisfy if a sequel is made ends up ruining the majority of what preceded it. I had fun with a lot of this movie, but by the end, I was hoping that something would actually happen. When the characters finally tell us that they’re going to do that thing that they set out to do from the start, and then we fade to the credits, it’s infuriating. I wanted to let The Golden Compass into my heart, but it shied away at the last minute, leaving cold in its place.
Our film, and the books on which it is based, takes place in an alternate universe, one where everyone has a daemon who represents that person’s soul. It takes the form of an animal, or in the case of children, multiple animals, morphing whenever convenient. It doesn’t “settle” until adulthood, presumably because it represents how easy it is to influence the mind of its person. It also makes the main character’s daemon infinitely more valuable, as it can morph at will.
Our protagonist is Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan who spends her free time hanging out with the street kids despite living in and attending a very prestigious school. Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), took her in and put her here, even though he’s always off on an adventure. For instance, he’s about to go into the far north in order to attempt to find out whether or not parallel universes exist, and whether or not people can reach them. He’s science, and is almost murdered by the Magisterium, playing the role of the Church.
Inevitably, Lyra ends up setting out on a journey of her own. One of the street kids gets captured by a group of bandits, she herself is essentially kidnapped by an upper class lady named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) gets involved, and it all becomes one big, glorious mess by the end of it. Characters move from place to place, getting into trouble as they go, although not a whole lot really happens that has a major impact.
See, minor details and problems come up that need solving, but they’re so incidental that they hardly matter. This is a big idea movie; it largely works because of those ideas, as well as its none-too-subtle stabs at the Church. It has a brain and thoughts, is what I’m getting at, and it has a massive overarching story that, when its destination is reached, should manage to make a profound impact simply because of its scope and because of those incidental details.
However, when we don’t get to reach the finale, and we don’t get to have any of that impact, those small plot threads don’t wind up feeling like they matter. They become time wasters, obstacles which prohibited us, either because of time or budget, from getting to the real conclusion. They become something that draws out anger, not anything positive. We collect a group of characters, essentially an army, which leads us to believe there’s going to be a war — whenever it is that Lyra gets to the North, that is. When that never happens, it’s a huge let down, and because it’s the last thought in our minds as the credits roll, I was left with a negative overall taste for The Golden Compass.
The only positive I can come up with that I cannot shake is the special effects that went into creating it. There is some really good work done here, and it’s almost a shame that this is the project into which it had to go. The creatures that the artists have come up with look amazing, and while it cost New Line $180 million, it’s worth it. For the visuals alone, The Golden Compass is almost worth seeing.
The concept is a bigger draw than any one aspect, though, and for that, you can just read the books. They’re not too long, and you won’t feel disappointed because you have to stop in the middle of the story, unsure if you’ll ever get to continue. The Golden Compass was a huge financial risk, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a sequel to it. If one was guaranteed, I might be fine with the ending, but because one is doubtful to ever happen, it makes me feel sick.
The other high point is the actor playing Lyra, Dakota Blue Richards. She was picked in an open audition from over 10,000 possibles, and does a fantastic job in her first acting job ever. Lyra is the type of street-smart, tough kid that shouldn’t be living where she does, and the contrast between the two is quite striking. And acting alongside CGI creatures can’t have been easy, even for a seasoned actor, so you have to give her credit for that.
The Golden Compass is a mess without an ending, a film with big ideas but no way to harness them or focus them into something poignant. It might have worked in Philip Pullman’s novels, but it doesn’t work here. Cutting the story as soon as we start to get to the good part just makes the earlier moments feel wasteful. They lose their impact as a result, and it’s hard to like the film on the whole. It looks good, has a lot of talent involved in its production, and a strong lead performance by its first-time child actor, but this is a dud and not worth your time.