"Golden Compass" is one of those outrageously expansive fantasy tales with enough characters to fill three movies and a perplexing vocabulary that stacks up in a hurry, leaving the bewildered viewer gasping for air. That's not to say this is a bad film, but it's a tough nut to crack. As fantasy epic book-to-screen adaptations go, this has the most intimidating thickness to date.
Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is a precocious 11 year-old roaming the collegiate home of her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), with her animal other half (known as Daemons), Pantalaimon, at her side. Gifted a truth-revealing compass device called an Alethiometer, Lyra finds herself in severe jeopardy when the wicked Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) shows up to claim the girl and the compass for the benefit of the vile Gobblers. Meeting up with loyal Gyptians, cowboys (Sam Elliot), witches (Eva Green), and earning the life debt of a bruiser Ice Bear (a polar bear crossed with a punch in the face) named Lorek Byrnison (robustly voiced by Ian McKellen), Lyra heads to the arctic to save a group of children undergoing experiments performed by the Gobblers and find the secret of a mysterious luminescent substance called Dust.
Phew. If any of the above synopsis made sense, congratulations! You're already halfway to understanding the riches "Compass" offers. Adapted from the Philip Pullman trilogy of novels, "Compass" is setting out to be the next "Lord of the Rings" franchise dynamo, complete with sophisticated special effects, a sparkling cast, and labyrinthine source material that is begging to roll out over three movies. So much so, "Compass" actually fails to contain an ending.
I'm new to Pullman's vast imagination, which leaves me at quite a loss over how to interpret writer/director Chris Weitz's compacted adaptation. Weitz is not the first director that comes to mind when dreaming up the possibilities of a fantasy free-for-all; clearly the people financing the film could make the artistic credibility leap from "American Pie" to "Compass" that I couldn't. Actually, Weitz does an admirable job stapling down a coherent narrative, keeping his camerawork clean and always goading a sense of awe into the forefront. He seems fearful of pushing his luck with the script, so the ambition of the picture is limited to character introductions, not stylish widescreen wizardry.
If the sheer amount of story doesn't feel heavy enough, "Compass" spends almost every scene explaining itself, as if stuck in permo-exposition mode. It's exhausting trying to keep up with everything onscreen (the Dust subplot is left painfully unexplained), but the basics are covered, even if they discharge from characters who spend more time spitting out plot points with puckered pusses than engaging in bewitching verbal warfare.
To lessen the ache of the narrative, Weitz has the good sense to make his "Compass" into a visual feast, with stunning usage of GCI to the make the Ice Bears roar to life (they are a spectacular film highlight) and create a vibrant fantastical alternate universe for the film to exist in. The costumes by Ruth Meyers merit equal attention, for the clothes are just as optically stimulating as the arctic landscapes or the zeppelin modes of transportation that glide cautiously around the "Compass" world.
The true spark of the film originates from the fierce, controlled, naturalistic performance from Richards. She's tremendous in a demanding role, working with special effects and playing against fearless elder actors with 100 times the experience (Kidman is oodles of fun as the villain, but there's not enough Green or Craig). Lyra is the soul and spine of "Compass" and Richards does the character justice, never falling back on dopey kid actor tricks, selling the tough cookie attitude with marvelous confidence.
While the Ice Bears violently battle to magnificent results (seriously, it's an amazing sequence), Mrs. Coulter slithers around looking for an angle to snatch Lyra, and the forces of good and evil gather for an upcoming, prophesied war, "Compass" starts to hum agreeably as digestible fantasy entertainment. Not shattering stuff, but engrossing. Then the conclusion knocks at the door.
When I write "conclusion" I mean "place where the end credits show up." "Compass" doesn't actually contain a complete story, preferring to push the weight of resolution to the next film. That is, if there's even going to be a next film. Pullman's trilogy wasn't filmed in one fatal swoop, so the burden of a climax is based more on box office performance now than dramatic integrity. It's unsettling, but somewhat heartening, since it keeps the running time under two hours.
"Golden Compass" is one wordy endeavor, but it gallops to satisfaction, rising above significant adaptation odds to form a semi-coherent, lively fantasia of monsters and warriors. Just don't expect the tale to sniff out a finish line, and there's loads of fun to be had.
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