The Golden Compass

Catholic watchdog groups that don’t want you to see The Golden Compass want you to consider this: Children, converted to atheism after a film with talking drunken bears leads them to its religion-questioning source novel, laughing in the parking lots of churches they’ve torched.

OK, perhaps not. Author Philip Pullman is a professed atheist with an occasionally heavy-handed pen, yes, but Compass — his literary fantasy with open Catholic criticism — isn’t about burning down the church. It’s about igniting sparks to independently evaluate dogma and forge individual paths, wherever they lead. And if it’s to a strengthened faith, consider it a spiritual test. Rapturous and, at times, shockingly harsh, his fantasy novel is steeped in pre-teen rites of passage metaphor.

By comparison, writer-director Chris Weitz’s film adaptation likely will confuse anyone who’s not read the book and rip out its reason to exist for those who have. Rather than being specifically religious, the overtones are vaguely political, as threatening as a kitten and rendering moot most of Pullman’s dynamics.

Perhaps the train wreck expected of a comedy director uncertain of his abilities for the project, Compass is so toothless and bloodless it might as well be rated PG-13 for loud, snarling animals.

There are plenty of those in a parallel version of England where people’s souls walk beside them, manifested in animal form and referred to as “daemons.” Production designer Dennis Gassner (Big FIsh) at least has made a film with a hybrid past-future scheme that’s consistently lovely to look at, clumping together spacey architectural domes a la Star Wars with Victorian-era accents.

Lyra Belacqua (the lifeless newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphaned ward of scholars at Jordan College in Oxford. Provided for by patronage of her mysterious uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, in a glorified cameo), Lyra is pampered and impetuous enough to sneak into secret meetings.

There, she learns of Asriel’s quest to find Dust, an astronomical emanation that could be a key to entering other universes. The college endorses, and funds, Asriel’s exploratory Arctic mission.

The Magisterium — a totalitarian “ruling power” that “tells people what to do in a kindly way” — sees Dust as a reversal of the teachings it’s used to keep those under its rule in check. No sooner than Asriel arrives in a frigid wasteland than he’s apprehended and jailed by Magisterium forces.

Back in Oxford, Lyra falls under the enchanting spell of Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a grand dame who arrives with an ability to hold her own against male scholars. It’s a dream come true when Marisa takes Lyra under her wing into high society with promises of voyages to distant lands.

Before Lyra goes, scholars give her an “alethiometer,” a compass with coded ciphers to answer questions that Lyra soon masters. With its help, she finds Marisa might be behind a horrible act — stealing the children of Oxford, including Lyra’s friend Roger (Ben Walker), for reasons unknown.

Sound complicated? That’s just the first 30 minutes of clumsy caroms from one scene of clunky exposition to the next.

Fleeing in fear for her own life, Lyra finds herself on an Arctic journey to find her uncle and, perhaps, Roger. Her gradual group of allies are: her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), which can shift shapes because Lyra still is a child; wayfaring warriors known as Gyptians; Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), a legendary leader of witches; Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), a balloon-operating cowboy; and Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), a disgraced warrior polar bear whose revenge and redemption is a key component of Lyra’s quest.

Weitz, the project’s original director before leaving and returning, apparently junked a script by Oscar winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love). Where Stoppard may have soaked the story in its necessary subtext, Weitz approaches it as nothing more than a hustling, bustling blockbuster. Even at that level, it’s constricted, with amateurish action sequences that disappoint even before a big Braveheart hoot, holler and run finale. As a transition for Weitz from intimate comedies like About a Boy, it’s unwieldy, awkward proof that he’s ill fitted to direct anything on a grand scale.

And where the book’s touching bond between Lyra and Iorek mirrored Atreyu and Falcor in The Neverending Story, their connection here feels only like buildup to a throwdown between bears who look like they could use a Coke and a smile. Rather than feeling sympathy for a depressed bear finding his way again, you just anticipate Iorek’s eventual eruptions of violence. And McKellen, with his ominous-deity tones, only can achieve so much majesty with so much vocal distortion.

The same goes for so many of the other characters, from whom any sense of secrecy and surprise has been erased. Kidman and Elliott are the only two escaping unscathed — she with an ice-queen demeanor fitting of Coulter’s chilliness and he a wily, but gentle, kindly and caring, friend to Lyra.

Otherwise, Compass is hopelessly out of whack, changing chronology so it can climax with a depressingly lame massive-army battle and conclude without much consequence. In its final frames, Weitz’s slap in the face to the book’s fans is bound to leave sticky, stinky trails of schmaltz.

The Catholic pundits are half-right in proclaiming that watching Compass could be hazardous to youths. It shows how a lyrical and challenging literary story can become a stupid, sloppy film.

An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish:

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