The Golden Compass is as much Steampunk as Fantasy, and I really appreciate that about it. The design of the whole thing is fantastic: the locations, the dirigibles, the carriages; the various clockwork creations, including the Compass itself. It all looks amazing.
The polar bear fight is also very cool; especially the way it ends.
And the cast. The cast, naturally, is good. They were my biggest reason for wanting to see this thing.
But everything else? Not so much.
My biggest problem with The Golden Compass is that it's a kids' movie. If I was an eight-year-old girl, I think I would've loved it. Yeah, sure, there are some heady themes moving around in there, but they don't make up for the sheer goofiness of the plot.
The story boils down to a little girl named Lyra whose best friend has been kidnapped by the Powers of Evil. She and her magical, talking pet set off to rescue him, collecting other magical allies along the way: a cool band of gypsies, a faerie princess, a kindly old coot with a flying ship, and a talking bear. They try to disguise the faerie princess archetype by calling her a witch, but they're not fooling me. They might as well have given her butterfly wings and green hair. It would've fit the tone of the movie better. And while they were at it, they could've just changed the bear into a unicorn. It would've been more honest.
Really, what The Golden Compass feels like is a little girls' fairy tale that's been varnished over with a coat of badass. The dialogue certainly sounds that way. Also, the way Lyra keeps calling all of her magical friends by their full names. The bear isn't just "Iorek," he's "Iorek Byrnison" to her. The witch isn't "Serafina," she's "Serafina Pekkala." And for no other reason I can see than that they sound more magical that way. Sam Elliott, the kindly old coot, doesn't even get a first name; he's "Mr. Scoresby." It makes him sound like the Wizard of Oz. Or Uncle Wiggly.
What made the Lord of the Rings movies so cool is that they're so grounded. They may be about elves and dwarves and hobbits and wizards, but everyone feels like real people. It feels like something that's really happening as you're watching it. In The Golden Compass, it feels like something in some guy's head. A made up story he's telling his daughter. There's no weight to it.
And it's too bad, because like I said, there were things I liked about it. I didn't mention Daniel Craig's character, but he's basically the hero of every H.G. Wells and Jules Verne novel mixed with a little Indiana Jones. And I like that the Powers of Evil already control most of the world and see themselves as a benevolent organization.
I also like the bit about humans' souls living not inside them, but alongside them in the shape of animal companions called daemons. Occasionally, they're little more than talking pets, but when the idea is used well, it's a clever way of showing us the true nature of a character and revealing clues about her motivations. I don't quite get though why the daemons are always the opposite gender of their human companions. The book may explain it, but the movie doesn't, so I'm stuck wondering about the symbolism there.
I also wonder about some of the other symbolism. The Powers of Evil are called the Magisterium and, if the controversy-mongers are to be believed, represent the Catholic Church or possibly organized religion in general. The Golden Compass represents Truth, or at least the ability to see it. I'm not so sure what the Dust represents yet though.
We're told that the Dust binds everything together: the humans with their daemons; even the universe itself. It's sort of like the Force, I guess, and my belief system would lead me to compare it with God. But from what little I know about Pullman, I'm guessing that's not the case in his story. Especially since the Magisterium fears the Dust and doesn't want anyone to understand it. I'm sure it's a question that'll be answered in the sequels. Lyra pretty much says as much at the end of this one.
I also didn't get why the Magisterium is doing what it's doing with the children it kidnaps. Nicole Kidman tries to explain it at one point, but I'm having a hard time understanding her and an even harder time connecting her explanation with any symbolism behind it. Maybe once I know what the Dust is that'll fall into place too.
So, yeah, there's some possibly interesting stuff to think about. I don't think we're given enough information to really figure it out yet, but maybe I'm just being lazy. It's hard to tell with this movie. A lot of it's just silly, girly stuff, but there's a definite sense that the movie wants to be more than that. I can't tell yet where the symbolism falls in that spectrum.
I wish The Golden Compass had been more successful at rising above children's fantasy. As it is, I'm sort of curious to see where the story's going and would certainly like to see the sequels, but if something prevented them from getting made, I wouldn't feel a loss. For that matter, I wouldn't even feel compelled to read the books in order to find out how it ends.
Two out of five polar bear slaps.