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Untrue north

This Compass doesn't point to Pullman
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  December 5, 2007
2.5 2.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass | Directed by Chris Weitz | Written by Weitz, based on the novel by Philip Pullman | With Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Eva Green, Ben Walker, and the voices of Ian MCKellen, Freddie Highmore, Ian MCShane, and Kathy Bates | New Line | 114 minutes
Just as there are many universes in the world of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (published in Great Britain as Northern Lights), so there are many movies in this New Line adaptation. It’s a James Bond flick, with a shadowy organization dedicated to world domination, and our hero infiltrating said organization and blowing up its laboratory, and then the convergence of good guys from all directions for the final battle! (There’s even Daniel Craig and Eva Green from Casino Royale, though his Asriel and her Serafina Pekkala haven’t yet made eye contact.) It’s a Walt Disney heartwarmer, ending with a bear, a witch, and two cute kids out to save the world! It’s a Star Trek primer of exploration and inquiry, at the end of which Lee Scoresby’s hydrogen balloon, looking uncannily like the Enterprise, prepares to boldly go where no hydrogen balloon has gone before!

Hollywood is, however, not eager to go where avowed atheist Philip Pullman has controversially gone before. Its title drawn from Paradise Lost, Pullman’s His Dark Materials children’s-book trilogy alludes copiously to Milton and Blake (his original title for the trio, The Golden Compasses, refers to the measuring instrument wielded by Milton’s God and Blake’s Urizen) as it fulminates against the deadening strictures of organized religion and every other kind of authority. In The Golden Compass, which is set in a parallel universe where Anglian children are disappearing, Oxford orphan Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) breaks away from Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), to whom the university has entrusted her, and goes in search of the kids, and her Uncle Asriel, in the Far North, where she discovers that the Magisterium (Pullman’s version of the Church) is trying to wipe out Original Sin by separating each child from its animal dæmon, or external soul, before the child reaches puberty. It’s a parody of actual Christian theology (in particular the Incarnation), and if the Catholic Church chooses to recognize itself in it, and in Pullman’s cartoon-like representatives, that’s the Catholic Church’s problem.

Whatever its shortcomings, Pullman’s trilogy is a powerful, thought-provoking, one-of-a-kind original. Chris Weitz’s movie is standard-issue Lord of the Rings/Narnia children’s fantasy. Weitz — best known as the producer of, yes, American Pie — preferred his own screenplay to the one already embarked on by Tom Stoppard. (It’s not the first American muddling of Pullman: publisher Knopf renamed Northern Lights thinking that the “golden compasses” referred to Lyra’s truth-telling alethiometer.) And though Weitz’s script preserves most of the plot essentials (and some of Pullman’s lumpy exposition), the sensibility is soft and sometimes flabby. What edge there is comes from Brighton newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, tough and surly as Lyra, and Nicole Kidman (here so evil, she must think the Magisterium is a stand-in for Scientology), who in slinky white underlines the repressed sexuality of Marisa Coulter. Daniel Craig hardly registers; Eva Green as good witch Serafina and Sam Elliott as Texan Lee Scoresby are parentally reassuring — just what Pullman is not. Armored bear Iorek Byrnison looks good, but there’s too much calculation in Ian McKellen’s voice. (Why not Patrick Stewart?) Overall the film focuses on special effects (the dæmons are cute) at the expense of human interaction.

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