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December 15, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | December 15, 2007 |

One of the great things about Philip Pullman’s trilogy of fantasy novels was its unapologetic, challenging conceits — the author pulled no punches in his confrontation (to call it an “attack” seems too reductive and bellicose) of Christian dogma and the institutional church in Western Civilization; the entire story was galvanized with the author’s proud defiance in the name of secular humanism, and the knowledge of his own heterodoxy. From a literary standpoint, this challenge made for an amazing story; His Dark Materials accepted Biblical/Miltonian mythologies at the same time it overthrew them. Whether or not you share an affinity for Pullman’s subtext is irrelevant — what makes or breaks a story isn’t what axe the author had to grind, it’s the trappings that surround it, and we’re fortunate that Pullman housed his alternative to Narnia in a wondrously realized universe with exciting characters and fantastical complexity. Dawkins and Hitchens should take note.

Writer-director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) had the unenviable task of cinematically converting an epic (a daunting task in itself) that had a pre-conceived “controversy” already built into it. Naturally, any references to Pullman’s criticism of certain Catholic elements, overt or implicit, will be ignored or diluted. It’s sad to see these changes, evidence of both studio and audience cowardice toward iconoclasm, but like I said, enough remains in the story’s essence to maintain greatness, provided the proper balance could be struck — shockingly, Weitz was able to pull it off.

The Golden Compass is pretty great children’s fantasy, striking most of the right chords for an adventure with the additional boon of pitch-perfect casting. I’m as surprised as anyone, given the script’s omission of religious implications and a toning down of much of the darkness and violence which gave the original books a real sense of tension, not to mention the rampant production problems (Weitz left the project at least once). But the essentials: great, complex characters and a fully realized world are in fine form.

Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards — thank god she began acting early; porn beckons for that name!) is an orphaned girl who leads a charmed, sequestered life at Jordan College in Oxford. The world Lyra inhabits has a peculiar metaphysical trait — a person’s soul is manifested as a “dæmon,” a kind of spirit which may take the shape of any animal (during the formative years). A dæmon can’t move far away from its human counterpart, and physical actions affect the other; if your dæmon dies, you die, and vice versa. Lyra’s dæmon, Pantalaimon (voice of Freddie Highmore) accompanies her throughout the film; every character has one, and they sometimes provide a chilling glance at an individual’s personality. Lyra’s life is relatively carefree — she’s only haphazardly raised by the scholars, given access to the college’s knowledge and otherwise allowed to run free among Oxford’s stony streets. Occasionally she’s looked in on by her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), an enigmatic adventurer/politico.

On one of Lord Asriel’s infrequent visits, it is learned that his research has led to the discovery of some metaphysical substance called Dust, which purportedly flows into every human through his or her dæmon, and which may point the way to other parallel universes. This pseudo-scientific revelation is not greeted kindly by the Catholic Church Magisterium, a dogmatic crypto-corporate institution which wields dictatorial power in this world, and with whose teachings the discovery conflicts. This event sets the stage for what will become the chief conflict in the series — the Magisterium’s attempts to staunch knowledge of Dust and, later, to manipulate the substance and force it to conform to their existing dictums.

Lyra becomes involved when her best friend, Roger (Ben Walker), is kidnapped by a shadowy force, who may be affiliated with the Magisterium; simultaneously, one of their representatives, Mrs. Coulter (a frostily perfect Nicole Kidman), takes Lyra on as her apprentice. Coulter gradually reveals herself to be insidious, and Lyra escapes, joining with a vagabond group looking for Roger and other missing children, which leads them north into ersatz Scandinavia and an inevitable showdown with the Magisterium.

So, as you can see, there’s quite a bit going on plot-wise to keep the film bouncing along at an impressive clip. The brevity of the individual plot points sometimes makes The Golden Compass feel choppy; ironically, Weitz’s fealty to the book causes him to rush and condense the exposition. Visually, however, Lyra’s world is plenty impressive; Weitz never indulges in CG ubiquity despite the great temptation given his fantasy setting. Real sets and locations finely house real actors, who co-exist next to their beastly avatars rather well and give the action sequences an added vibrancy. And the supporting cast is inexplicably phenomenal — Derek Jacobi, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Christopher Lee, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, and the voices of Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Kathy Bates; big personalities to match these efforts in epic-ness.

The Golden Compass isn’t always successful, but it’s successful enough to map an exciting new world that engages (and could hopefully be explored further with sequels). I know it’s pointless to note that it isn’t as good as the book, but the source material shines through an otherwise moderate movie, making it something more. And to anyone unfamiliar with Pullman’s books — get on it; to wrap a detailed children’s fantasy around the highest of philosophical and cultural struggles … I can’t stress how rare that is.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and does not give two shits about the Razorbacks.

Lyra's Oxford

The Golden Compass / Phillip Stephens

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