Review: 'Compass' loses its direction

Forget the scuttlebutt concerning the atheist bent of “The Golden Compass.” This whimsical fantasy driven by the standard tug-of-war between good and evil features strong special effects at the service of the story rather than the sake of themselves.

Writer Philip Pullman, on whose book, “Northern Lights” the movie is based, has let it be known, discretely, that he feels New Line Cinema could have remained more faithful to the contents of his book and still reaped a strong box office.

But the studio decided to scrub the original story’s more controversial elements that would have encouraged a media circus of protests, the theatrics of which often surpasses those on the screen.

“The Golden Compass” takes place in a world not unlike ours, a sort of parallel universe. The technology both lags behind and exceeds the innovations we enjoy today. The geography is the same or similar, as are the names of different nationalities, religious groups, and places.

Our heroine, prepubescent Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), lives at Jordan College not far from their world’s London. There she receives her lessons piecemeal from attending scholars. Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), has placed her here for safety, as she, like Harry Potter, is the chosen one.

The guile of Lyra’s character lies in her preference for ragamuffin friends, the common people, to the folks of letters and wealth. She’s a tomboy, down to earth and more than willing to get her hands dirty.

She, like all beings in her world, possesses a deamon, represented by an animal, which might be described as an external manifestation of the soul. Prior to adulthood, these creatures shape-shift, depending on the situation and their human’s reaction to it. It is common for folks to have consultations with a bird, rodent, or monkey on their shoulder or by their side.

Without notice to Lord Asriel she is peacefully taken from her long time home to be schooled by his nemesis, the powerful and vile Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a figure from the politically dominant Magisterium. Coulter plans to enlist her new protégé in the organization’s plan to control the world and all the minds in it.

As Lyra is being subjected to this veiled kidnapping, the Master of Jordan (Jack Shepherd), a calculating fence rider, anticipating the impending war of good versus evil, takes her aside and secretly passesher the Golden Compass, the possession of which she is not to reveal.

This magical device, when read by those destined to do so, reveals the truth of what was, is and will be. Of the several initially made, Lyra now possesses the last one.

One of the current activities of the evil Magisterium, of which Coulter is a central figure, involves the abduction of children, separating them from their deamons, extinguishing their free will.

As much as Coulter coos with her self-appointed charge, she wears an unmistakable aura of malevolence, dripping with contempt — a hint of ruthlessness that even gives the powerful a cause for pause.

Lyra, initially seduced by the opportunity to be under Coulter’s tutelage, begins to sense the danger. She executes an escape and navigates her way through the unfamiliar streets of a large metropolitan area.

Eventually she is assisted by the Gyptians (read Gypsies) in her escape, gathering additional allies for the battle ahead and the rescue of Billy, her best buddy, now among the missing.

Foremost in her new army is a polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) on whose back she can travel and behind whose courage and skill in battle she can engage the enemy.

Her sudden display of absolute fearlessness in the face of danger and unexplained ability to employ Machiavellian strategies (all in the interest of good) pushes credulity.

Pullman’s book, from which the screenplay comes, while marketed to young adults, possesses layered academic references and allusions to theological argument, which do not lend themselves to adaptation.

The script, which has been reworked, second-guessed and honed for simplification and the removal of offending parts, has failed to compensate for the inevitable gaps.

The book and screenplay have been likened to “Lord of the Rings”, and “Harry Potter”, a misleading comparison. As a movie “The Golden Compass” simply is not in their league.

With the exception of a few treats, there exists little to distinguish this movie from similar works in the fantasy genre.

Nicole Kidman’s Coulter can make your hair stand on end with the simple lift of a reproachful eyebrow.

But what really gives “The Golden Compass” its spark is Sam Elliott, who brings his special twang and cowboy sensibilities–a character so out of context you might suspect he walked in off another movie set. The veteran lends a much needed levity and vitality to a collection of stiff upper lips.

“The Golden Compass,” certainly passable for family holiday entertainment, finds its design dictated by what it doesn’t say as much as what it says. That’s not the way to make a movie.

Grade: B-

Lester Gray reviews movies for Read all of Examiner movie reviews.

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