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Movie Review: The Golden Compass

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Let's get this out of the way immediately--if you are a fan of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, you will be disappointed by some of the elisions and excisions made in this movie. The degree to which it bothers you will largely determine how much you enjoy The Golden Compass. I won't get into the details too much since it would spoil the movie for those unfamiliar with the novels. Let's just say that--much like The Two Towers--the ending of the first book has been pushed to the next film and two characters have been spared from death.

The overarching element of controversy surrounding the books--its declared Atheism--has been entirely stripped away from the movie. The Holy Church/Magesterium of the trilogy has simply become the Magesterium in the film, and they are portrayed as little more than a powerful government hell-bent on experimenting on children and stifling freedom. They are far more Nazi than they are Catholic. Similarly, Lord Asriel has been denatured. The one-time architect of the destruction of Heaven is now just a rogue scientist on the run.

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You might think by my comments so far that I didn't much like the movie, but this would be incorrect. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit. The depth and breadth of imagination evident in its visual design is so profound that I often found myself completely carried away in the story, oblivious to what was missing from the novels. The casting of the film is almost flawless. Though he is only briefly in the movie, Daniel Craig is an ideal Lord Asriel--brilliant, tough, unsparing. I'm excited to see what he does as his role expands in the forthcoming films.

Nicole Kidman shines equally as bright as the cold Ms. Coulter. She hasn't been this fiercely beautiful since Eyes Wide Shut and has never carried so much quiet menace in her smile. Sam Elliot and Eva Green are also perfect as Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkula (though their roles are significantly diminished from the novels). As the heroine at the center of the story, it would be impossible to improve upon the casting of Dakota Blue Richards. In her first film, she is the equal of every actor with whom she shares the screen--no small feat considering the power of Craig, Kidman and Ian McKellan (as the voice of the panserbjorne, Iorek Byrnison).

Back to the visual design--new ground is broken in The Golden Compass. The CGI artists have truly created a world that is ours but not ours. The rendering of the daemonsis seamless. Even in scenes where crowds fill the screen, there is never a lack of individuality in each creature. I had expected to see your typical CGI army of animals--think any battle scene in Lord of the Rings--but the composition here is much more random and real. Another issue that originally concerned me--Lyra's reading of the alethiometer--is a wonder in how it weaves together her thoughts with Dust to create something purely cinematic and not just visual exposition.

It's the dichotomy between the stripped-down story and the overwhelming visual canvas that is ultimately so frustrating about The Golden Compass. I certainly recommend the movie, but I'm left wondering how much better it could have been if New Line had the guts to make a movie that was closer in spirit to the novels. Certainly, all adaptations require changes and reductions, but I think writer-director Chris Weitz may have cut this one a little too close to the bone. I can't imagine anyone actually being offended by the treatment of religion in this movie. In the final summation, that may be its biggest weakness.

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Photos courtesy of New Line Cinemas