Monday, December 10, 2007

Movie Review: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is the first book in a fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman. Based on the trailers I saw before the new movie based on it, it's one of many movies trying to capitalize on the success of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. It's not fair to say that about the book since The Golden Compass was actually published two years before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The world of the series is similar to ours, but slightly different. Technology is at the time of zeppelins, fantastical creatures exist, and every human has a personal small creature that stays with them called a daemon. Daemons are an outward representation of the soul and we see them as cats, birds, rodents, monkeys, etc. Childrens' daemons change forms but as they reach puberty the daemon settles on a single form. A daemon is always with its human and touching someone else's daemon is strictly taboo.

The story centers around an 11 year-old girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards). She's an orphan and her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) had her placed at Jordan College in Oxford where she studies with the scholars and plays with local children. She overhears a conversation between her uncle, the scholars and a representative of the Magisterium about mysteries in the frozen north involving "dust" and other worlds. Her friend Roger is kidnapped by the "Gobblers" who've been kidnapping children for a while. She wants to go find him but had recently met the politically powerful Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and agrees to study with her in London. Just before leaving, the master of the school gives Lyra a small gold device called an alethiometer which can "measure the truth". Lots more happens as Lyra goes off on a long adventure, meeting various people and creatures such as witches and armored polar bears.

On advice from a friend I had read the book before seeing the film. As is usual, the book is better. The book is 350 pages and the film is just under 2 hours. Most scenes are still in the film, but abbreviated; and while there seems to be a lot of exposition in the film, I kept noticing how much they left out. The book is a typical quest where one event leads to the next. In each instance Lyra learns a little more about the daemons, the Gobblers, her past, the alethiometer, etc. The film introduces some of this information very early which takes away some of the mystery. Also the book was told from Lyra's point of view and the film had some scenes where Lyra wasn't present. Overall it was pretty faithful though some major events are also out of order. I'm not sure how well those who hadn't read the book would follow some things, and the changes made things confusing for me.

The special effects are very very good, in fact they are the best thing in the film. The interaction of the daemons with the humans was seemless. Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) is an armored bear that befriends Lyra and several of his fight scenes are spectacular. The set design and costumes also uphold their share in creating a different world. The acting is fine, but the film is really about the whirlwind plot.

For all the complaints of some religious groups, most of the religious aspects of the book have been removed (and I think most of them develop in the second book anyway). The problem is that the soul of the story has been removed too. The film is a series of events and because it's the first of a trilogy there are many questions left unresolved, but aside from the giant bear, it's hard to get excited by any of them.


Sean said...

Lyra's friend-bear was Iorek Byrnise. Apparently, in the book, Iofur was the name of the other bear (The King), but in the film they renamed the character to Ragnar to avoid confusion over the similar names...

Ragnar was voiced by Al Swearengen

Howard said...

Yeah you're right and I mixed it up in the book all time. It was particularly confusing with Lyra's tendency to always use people's full name when addressing them. And I didn't realize it was Swearengen's voice until looking it up in imdb. That is some brilliant voice casting.