Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Golden Compass

It is inevitable that a hugely successful series of fantasy novels, adapted for the screen with lashings of CGI, should attract comparisons with 'The Lord of the Rings', Harry Potter and 'The Chronicles of Narnia'. I don't think any reviewer could go without mentioning any of those adaptations when tackling 'The Golden Compass'. I don't intend bucking that trend, but let's get it out of the way. While a vast improvement on the likes of 'The Chronicles of Narnia' (in retrospect they really ruined that adaptation), 'The Golden Compass' is no 'Lord of the Rings'. At base, it's probably on par with some of the earliest Potter movies.

The film follows the adventures of the precocious Lyra, a young girl living on an Earth of a parallel universe. Pursued by the malignant Majesterium, a dictatorial theocracy, and in search of a horde of children stolen by the Gobblers, it is through her eyes that we see a world where people wear their souls on the outside, literally. Everyone lives their lives accompanied by a 'daemon', an animal embodying their inmost self. Lying somewhere between Jiminy Cricket and a witch's familiar, they provide an opportunity for much of the film's CGI. Add in a kingdom of talking polar bears and you also have a chance for a starry cast of voice actors. Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sir Ian McKellan and others provide familiar sounds for the unfamilar visuals.

The live action stars are big too. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are only two of the familiar faces. Unfortunately the biggest role, that of Lyra, falls to newcomer, Dakota Blue Richards. Featuring in almost every scene, she simply hasn't got the range to support this movie, and it says a lot for little Freddie Highmore (of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' fame), that he is far more persuasive as Pan, Lyra's daemon, a voice-only part. Richards, in contrast, strikes a truculent note throughout with the result that you never really feel she is in any danger of failure. A little vulnerability is sorely needed.

Richards isn't the only problem though. The CGI, playing such a huge part in proceedings, should be seamless. It isn't. Too often we are reminded that this is a cinematic confection, when we should be lost in wonder. At one point, the music swelling, Iorek carries Lyra across a snowy Arctic plain in a scene that's meant to rouse the audience. I felt that I was watching an outtake from 'The Snowman'. It wasn't bad, it just looked animated.

When I first heard they were making Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, the first thing I wanted to know about was who they had chosen to direct. Surely such an epic required a director of epic status. When Chris Weitz, the director of 'American Pie', was pulled on board (despite interest from the likes of Terry Gilliam), my spirits sank. When he left the project, I felt happier. Unfortunately they brought him back. And my fears, though not fully realised, are in part. He doesn't foul it up (again this is no 'Narnia') and we are always carried along with the story. But like Richards', his is a one note performance. He doesn't have the epic scope to make this story truly magical, something it is crying out to be.

Of course, one can't blame the director for flawed work by the scriptwriter. Sadly that's Weitz too.

Whether Weitz was the right choice as director, he should have been pushed off the page as far as script was concerned. It's just too much to ask of him. I have not read the books upon which this was based, but the word on the street has been universally positive. There is apparently an intelligence and excitement to the books that pushes them a league or two above Harry Potter. Not on this evidence. I can't help feeling that it's the box-ticking approach Weitz takes that's at fault. We must introduce the witches, we must tell of the bears, we must fit in the aviator, etc.. Even the big Darth Vader moment is fumbled.

Of course, the controversial point about 'His Dark Materials' was the books' attitude to organised religion, with the Majesterium, a version of this world's many organised creeds, being the very definite bad guys of the trilogy. If you are looking for this, that is something you will see, but you have to look hard. Personally if this is so crucial to the books (as apparently it is), there should have been far more of it and to Hell with the so-called 'Christian Right'.

All this is not to say 'The Golden Compass' is a bad movie. It's just not as good as it could have been. Regardless of what everyone else seems to think, I feel the Harry Potter series in particular set the bar very low (okay, I'm back to those movies). Movies about magic should be magical and that's something I never have felt about the Harry Potter series. They always entertain, but they never elicit that sense of wonder I have always wanted. I had high hopes for 'The Golden Compass', but though it entertains, it too lacks that wonder.

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