Movie Review: The Golden Compass (2007)

Numbers one and two on Stephen Colbert's Threatdown.

The Golden Compass (2007)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Eva Green, Sam Elliott, Simon McBurney, Clare Higgins, Ian McKellen

Directed by: Chris Weitz

You know what I’ve learned over the past few years? There’s a lot of fantasy children’s literature out there, most of which seem to come in big books that are parts of series. When did this happen? I thought kids couldn’t even read anymore, yet there always seems to be a new fantasy children’s movie ready for the Christmas season, be it Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Dark is Rising… they’re everywhere, and since a lot of them come out when I’m visiting family, I can’t ignore them all.

So it was that I saw The Golden Compass, a poorly received adaptation of the first part of Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials series that I’ve never read that I wasn’t that excited to see. But I tried to make the most of it, and at the very least, expected a watchable movie. I will say that Chris Weitz‘s movie was the most entertaining movie I went to over Christmas, but that has more to say about the other two movies I went to than it does about The Golden Compass, but it does mean that it at least met the minimum requirements of entertainment.

Storytelling, on the other hand, is another problem altogether, one where the movie falls apart and earns some of the harsher criticism it’s been given. Simply put, there’s far too much plot going on for a 113 minute film. It’s a problem a lot of adaptations have, where they strip down a story to merely the servicing of plot, ripping out the flavour that makes the book worthwhile in the first place. I think fantasy and sci-fi adaptations are even more susceptible to this problem, as their fans so defiantly protect every part of stories that those producing the movie are too scared to keep any piece out for fear of alienating its audience.

The result in Golden Compass is a movie where a lot of stuff happens, but it’s hard to care about most of it. Scenes and developments pile one on top of another, without taking enough time for us to care about the many, many characters or the subplots and plots that are thrown at us, other than a general desire to see the good guys prevail. Beyond a lack of investment, the piling on of plot makes the whole thing feel arbitrary and convenient, pieced together by lengthy exposition in place of actual depth.

The whole thing looks pretty spectacular, introducing us to a fantastical world of animal dæmons, flying witches, cowboy aeronauts, and armoured talking bears. It’s a fair bit of eye candy that should capture the imagination of audiences, if not their hearts and minds. The main story is relatively compelling, but gets buried under the weight of all the various subplots that clutter up the movie. It gives me the impression that the books are really interesting and full adventures, if only it had received a better adaptation.


Related Reviews:
Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
Chronicles of Narnia, The: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

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