Saturday, December 08, 2007

Not quite golden, but certainly not bad

Despite (or perhaps more accurately, in spite of?) calls to boycott the film, the cinema was pretty full when I went to see The Golden Compass. So are critics and enraged religious groups right to gnash their teeth and condemn this movie to the fiery depths of Christian hell? I think they would have been disappointed, actually. The film adaptation of Philip Pullman's book (a.k.a. Northern Lights, the first volume in the trilogy His Dark Materials) is pretty watered down, neither outrightly portraying the Church as the villains (opting to refer to them as "the Magisterium"), nor touching on any religious topic, for that matter. I certainly didn't see or hear anything that would have offended even the most sensitive, die-hard practitioner of the Christian faith. Then again, that uber-sensitive, die-hard Christian wouldn't have stepped into the theater in the first place.

Too bad, because he would be missing a pretty entertaining flick. As I predicted, the movie turned out to be more spectacular than subversive, emphasizing the details of the parallel universe created by Pullman instead of his antipathy toward the Church and its beliefs. This is unmistakably nothing more than a fantasy picture with a lot of fancy special effects, depicting a world where human souls take the form of animal companions called daemons
, dirigibles and hot air balloons are not uncommon means of transport, witches look like Bond girls, and armored polar bears kick ass. Even the controversial "Dust", which in Pullman's books is denounced by the Magisterium as the source of original sin, is simply and vaguely explained as something "bad" in the film.

Because the movie is so diluted, I didn't enjoy it as much as the book. Specifically, a lot of the details about how the alethiometer (a.k.a. the golden compass) works, and how young heroine Lyra learns to use it, were left out. Perhaps because the filmmakers were trying to cram so much material into 2 hours, the transition between scenes was abrupt, and the story line moved along like a car driving over a road pockmarked with potholes. For someone who hasn't read the book (like the clueless woman seated next to me in the theater who kept asking her companion "ano yun?" or "sino yan?"), the plot would be a bit tough to follow.

I liked the casting though. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who played Lyra, is a natural talent, and makes Emma Watson (Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise) look amateurish by comparison. Freddie Highmore, object of my pedophiliac affection, lent his voice (
I think I detect the onset of puberty in the lower timbre) to Lyra's daemon Pantalaimon, while the great Ian McKellen lent his recognizable baritone to Iorek Byrnison the polar bear. Both Highmore and McKellen served as outstanding voice talents; on the other hand, Kristin Scott Thomas and Kathy Bates had about 4 lines between them as other daemons, and it makes me wonder how much they were paid for reciting those few sentences. For that matter, I wonder how much the producers paid Daniel Craig (of whom I have never been a fan) for a paltry handful of minutes on screen as Lord Asriel. Based on how he is described in the books, I expected the character to be harder and more haughty; in the movie, Asriel turned into frickin' James Bond (and not even the Bond I like). At least I now finally understand Eva Green's appeal. As queen witch Serafina Pekkala, she was majestic, mysterious, and mesmerizing, exotic accent, dark eyeliner and all.

But of course, there is no doubting who the star of the show was. Nicole Kidman was far more golden than the titular compass, outshining everyone in the cast with a spot-on turn as the calculating, cold and cruel Mrs. Coulter, and dazzling everyone in the audience with her stunning ice-queen beauty. If only for her performance, religious fanatics should give their Bible-thumping a rest and give this movie a chance.

There's really nothing incendiary about The Golden Compass film adaptation; if anything, I fault it for being too harmless. The power of Pullman's books (which in my opinion elevates them above the Harry Potter series) is precisely provocation-- the depth of meaning his fiction contains, as well as the radical and unpopular ideas it conveys, urges the reader to not just read, but think, and possibly reflect on his beliefs. The Golden Compass movie is the opposite: it encourages the viewer to not think, but just watch, and possibly reflect on how many more evil guy roles Christopher Lee will get to play in his lifetime.


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