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Movie Review: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
Written and directed by Chris Weitz from the novel Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
New Line Cinema

I watched The Golden Compass early yesterday morning, and found myself enjoying it.  By the end of the day, I couldn’t figure out why.  In fact, as I started thinking about it more, I found myself disliking it.  And I had told people that I thought it was good.  I didn’t give it a glowing, resounding “yes” but I was on the movie’s side.

Perhaps seeing something that wasn’t ultra-slumming like Eragon or The Seeker, two hastily-made fantasy adaptations trying to cash in on The Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter craze was what drew me in.  But I forgave its sloppily-told story, and I usually never do that.

In Compass, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives at Jordan College in Oxford, where she is essentially orphaned.  All humans are born with a daemon at their side, and they can change their form until adulthood.  Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), travels the world seeking knowledge and drops in on her occasionally.  On this day, he’s about to drop a bomb on the Magesterium, a ruling power not unlike a church, by showing them evidence that the oldest particle in the universe, Dust, travels through the sky through a human’s daemon and into the human himself, which opens up possibilities that threaten the Magesterium’s teachings.

Asriel goes to find more knowledge, but the Magesterium has already put programs into place to stop this turning tide.  One is kidnapping children and putting them through a brainwashing exercise to ensure that the next generation of adults don’t start thinking for themselves.  Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) is one of the officers of this program, and she takes Lyra, with the college master’s (Jack Shepherd) permission under the guise of her being able to visit her uncle.  Before she goes, the Master gives her an alethiometer, a compass that only she can read which “tells the truth.”

Lyra has some sort of witch’s prophecy about her, as almost all fantasy epics do, that she will be able to help win a war with her ability.  It’s not too long after she hangs out with Coulter and her evil monkey daemon that she becomes untrusting of her and escapes, being brought in by the Gyptians, the people of the sea.  From this point, Lyra joins forces with traveler Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and the ice bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), who owes her a debt after she helps him out with something.  The effort is to travel north and confront the kidnapping/brainwashing center, among other things.

So thinking on it some more, it ended up being better than Eragon or The Seeker, but far and away from being The Lord of the Rings.  Fantasies should have a sense of wonder, and this one misses out on that for the most part, trying to stumble its way through in under two hours, getting to this episode and that before its end.  I liked the movie’s “find the truth” spirit from the beginning, but it slowly loses that intrigue as it goes on.  It’s only slightly better than average, and that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but might be enough for some of the curious to watch it anyway.

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