'Golden Compass' Spins Wildly With No Magnetism

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 7, 2007

Nothing wrong with "The Golden Compass" that some of Sister Mary Ignatius's good Catholic discipline wouldn't clear up. She should rap the movie across its fierce little knuckles for violations not against church protocol but against storytellers' dogma: too many characters too fast; too much emphasis on design and effects and not enough on emotion; too many hoary Brit old pros. (It seems like the whole dang theatrical peerage is on hand!) And, worst of all, the wrong Dakota.

What, they got South instead of North? No, they got Dakota Blue Richards instead of Dakota Fanning in the role of an adventurous early-teen gal who leads a commando mission against a fascist organization's kidnapping plot and polar-brainwashing laboratory. Hmm, could it be that Fanning was busy? Or, smart and talented as she is, maybe Fanning saw through the overblown absurdities of "The Golden Compass," and politely declined.

As for Dakota Blue Richards, in the role of Lyra Belacqua (in this adaptation of the first book in atheist Philip Pullman's anti-religion fantasy trilogy, "His Dark Materials"), she's quite an unpleasant child. She lacks the better Dakota's brilliant comprehension of the material and sense of thoughtfulness; she has no depth and no capacity to project ambiguous or contradictory emotions. And while she's pleasant enough in appearance, she lacks "it," "it" being that magical penumbra the camera alone can define. And the scenes of her riding a galloping polar bear across the arctic wasteland for some reason reminded me of Michael Dukakis in that tank. You just think: What is wrong with this picture?

Anyway, the movie is jammed up with too much stuff. To begin with, it's set in Pullman's idea of a parallel world, which is just like this one except that it's always 1937, nobody invented the airplane (lots of dirigibles) and it's ruled by a power-mad colloquium called the Magisterium, apparently his equivalent of the Vatican. To me, however, it seemed like a suburb of ancient Rome, presented BBC style. There's Derek Jacobi, a vet of both "I, Claudius" and "Gladiator." Shouldn't these old fellows be ordering massacres in Gaul, not trying to prevent Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) from investigating dust?

Craig, for the record, is in the movie about 10 -- though possibly as many as 12 -- seconds. He's a university don who believes the Magisterium plans to use its power to conquer other parallel worlds, not merely the one he's in. The medium of this conquest will in fact be "dust," which is some sort of to-be-explained-in-the-next-installment substance that facilitates travel between them. Thus their target would be our world, huh? Not good.

But the one good thing about their world is that it features Nicole Kidman all marcelled up to look like one of the Mitford sisters, though I couldn't tell if it was the Nazi or the commie. I also couldn't tell you what she's doing in the movie, as she doesn't really do anything except, apparently, take Lyra to London to get dolled up for fab Bloomsbury parties with the swinging Woolfs (that Virginia was so madcap!).

That's about the first hour, and it'll put most kids and grown-ups to sleep, aside from the film's portrayal of the higher clergy as epicene, plotting sneaks, poisoners and spies. The intensity of Pullman's hatred for things religious, particularly bureaucracies housed in ornate buildings where single men mincingly express their fear and disgust for the little people, will be missed by most of the kids; most adults will find it both obvious and boring. Finally, even Pullman grows tired of it when Lyra uncovers a plot by which Magisterium thugs steal various kids and take them to the Arctic Circle. Suddenly, and without much preparation for it, Lyra puts together a unit to go up there and take the bad guys out and set free the kids and their daemons.

Did I mean "demons"? No, I mean daemons. A daemon is some sort of fairy -- or would that be faerie? -- affiliated with every being in this alternate world, containing their conscience, their subconscious, possibly their soul, possibly their identity. Sounds like Jiminy Cricket, no? It also looks like Jiminy Cricket -- some of the time. Daemons, according to writer Pullman and director Chris Weitz, are shape-shifters, sometimes taking insect form, sometimes cuddly animal, sometimes, when enraged, large scary animal. But when the daemon is gone, the kid's free will is gone, too, and he will be putty for the Magisterium's Roman senators. So up in the snowy North, the scientists are trying to electronically separate child from daemon -- fellow grown-ups, how silly is this?

It's very silly, and it never seems remotely real, with that dead sense of computer-generated imagery everywhere, those dramatic but clearly phony lighting schemes. And it just gets sillier and sillier when the witches and cowboys and lions and tigers and bears come aboard, oh my.

Two of the even sillier recruits are the voice of Sir Ian McKellen, hiding behind the bulk of a computer-animated polar bear that looks like an escapee from a Coca-Cola commercial and turns out to be some kind of defrocked warrior king; and Sam Elliott, looking as if he wandered in from the set of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." He's in all Old West regalia, complete to Colt and Beef-it's-what's-for-dinner gravitas. But he flies a double-balloon airship of arcane vintage for its quaintness value.

As a manifestation of first-rate movie design chops, "The Golden Compass" is splendid for several seconds at the beginning of each new scene. Of dramatic virtues, however, it is notoriously miserly, managing to be dull and confusing at once. I did like a terrific scene where two polar bears square off for a primal fight on the arctic plain, and I could watch Nicole Kidman doing that voodoo that she does so well all night long -- it does something to me -- but the rest seems a bit much.

The Golden Compass (117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for scenes of fantasy violence.

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