The Golden Compass

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“While feeling incomplete, still a good primer for young action heroine fans.”

There aren’t that many decent action heroine films for kids: much as I love Bloody Mallory or Kill Bill, they aren’t really child-appropriate. At the other end, films like the Harry Potter or the Narnia series, while containing female characters of some importance, sideline them in favor of the boys. That makes this a refreshing breath of fresh air, in that the heroine is firmly front and center as she goes through her adventures. It’s set in an alternate universe where people’s souls take the form of animals that accompany them everywhere, known as daemons. Childrens’ daemons shapeshift, but adults’ ones are static in form. Things are run by an authoritative group called The Magisterium, but Lord Asriel (Craig) who has found “dust” in a far Northern land, that could challenge the established order – the Magisterium have been kidnapping children for use in human experiments to counter dust. Into this is dropped Asriel’s niece, Lyra Belacqua (Richards), who is given the last golden compass, a device able to answer any question in the right hands. she is about to head North with Mrs. Coulter (Kidman), only to find she has a central role in the kidnapping – as Lyra’s best friend has now vanished, she bravely heads off, initially on her own, to rescue him.

It’s a pretty cool adventure tale, with some stirring sequences and memorable characters – not least the armoured polar-bear (voiced by McKellen), who becomes Lyra’s protector. He doesn’t just sit around drinking Coke, let’s say, though the entirely bloodless nature of the battle sequences lessen the impact significantly, though is likely an inevitable result of the PG-13 certificate. It is satisfyingly full of strong female characters, on both sides: as well as Lyra and Mrs. Coulter, the witch queen Serafina Pekkala kicks almost as much ass as the polar-bear. But the film fails badly to tie up the ends, particularly Lord Asriel, who is kidnapped in the middle and then vanishes, almost without further mention, until a quick reference at the end. Admittedly, while there are decent reasons why – it was intended as the first in a trilogy – we are less concerned here with excuses than actuality. And in actuality, it peters out.

I have to say, I haven’t read the book on which this is based, but opinion generally finds the movie to be ‘dumbed-down’, not least for removing the book’s far greater criticism of religion [the Magisterium is a thinly-disguised version of the Catholic Church]. This is likely inevitable, given the film’s $180m budget, but didn’t stop a campaign to boycott the film – which worked rather better in the US than abroad. It took more than four times its US gross overseas – compare, say, the first Narnia film, where the foreign multiplier was only about 1.5. Its relative failure in America has thrown the sequels into doubt, especially in the current economic climate, and that’s a shame: the world could always use some more heroines, and what you get here is painfully and obviously unfinished. Maybe I’ll go read the books instead.

Dir: Chris Weitz
Star: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ian McKellen

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