I’m perplexed by two issues concerning Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass. The first of these is similar to what I felt 23 years ago when David Lynch’s Dune came out. People called it incomprehensible, and told me I wouldn’t be able to follow the story line if I hadn’t read the book. When I saw that film for myself, I had no idea what they were talking about, since it didn’t seem especially hard to follow. The same is being said about The Golden Compass, and again I haven’t read the source book, but following the story of the film didn’t present much of a challenge.
Then I hear that the books in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman have been watered down thematically in the film. It’s said that the novels’ direct attack on organized religion has been subverted and replaced with a kind of safer antitotalitarian government theme. I’ve no doubt that the irreligious elements have been toned down, but there’s enough antireligion subtext in The Golden Compass to fuel pages and pages of academic studies.
For that matter, some of it is hardly subtext. There are obvious parallels to the age-old business of religion keeping knowledge from people on the pretext of doing so “for their own good.” There are discussions in the film that clearly refer to the idea of original sin. Moreover, the armor that was stolen from the bear Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) is said to be hidden in an “outpost of the Magisterium” (the Magisterium being the name of the controlling government—and not, coincidentally, the name of the Catholic Church’s “divinely appointed authority to teach the truths of religion”), which is revealed to be a building festooned with Russian Orthodox religious iconography. It is also stated that Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is going to be tried and executed for “heresy”—and heresy is generally applied to religious dogma, not to political concerns.
Either the toning down is all a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to defuse complaints by certain religious groups about the film’s content, or it’s a sly comment on the increasingly narrow gap between church and state. Possibly, it’s both. But what surprises me is the way in which all this content is being overlooked. On balance, I’d say that The Golden Compass is easily as antireligion as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) is pro-religion. The Golden Compass is simply subtler about it—as well as considerably more lively and entertaining.
Theological concerns to one side, The Golden Compass is a very agreeable fantasy that takes place in a skewed parallel world that looks like our own, but is as much different as it is the same. But unlike the worlds of fantasies like Narnia or the Lord of the Rings films, the world in this film feels a lot like the world as an imaginative child might see it—with people having “souls” that exist outside themselves (represented by companion animals called “daemons” that are not unlike witches’ familiars) and mysteries at every turn. It’s the sense of the mysteries and the discovering of their solutions that makes the film a particularly agreeable viewing experience, because it actually mirrors the sense of youthful discovery with the world falling into place—albeit not always pleasantly.
The central premise of a young girl, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), being the key to fulfilling a prophecy—a prophecy the forces of reason would like to see fulfilled, and one the Magisterium would like to see thwarted—isn’t exactly original or inspired, but it’s perfectly workable for the purposes of the film. The other characters—from the icy villainy of Mrs. Coulter (your chance to see Nicole Kidman spank her daemon monkey), to the stoic rationalism of Lord Asriel, to the gruff heroics of Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott)—are amusingly and creatively drawn. The one exception to this is Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala, who is only sketched in and serves (at least in this film) a wholly sorceress-ex-machina function.
Overall, the batting average is high, however, and while effects are central to the film, they don’t give it its greatest interest. Unlike most fantasy aimed at younger audiences, there’s a singularly disturbing undercurrent at work here that sometimes recalls Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children (1995), and which imbues the film with a weightiness that’s unusual in such works. It’s not a perfect movie, nor a great one, but it’s one where I’m actually intrigued to see the next two entries—and that’s saying something in these days of sequelitis. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence.