The Golden Compass is now in theaters, and with it comes an enormous amount of controversy regarding its anti-religion and pro-atheism themes. Those issues that church leaders have so notoriously brought into the limelight may distract from the basic fact that the movie is still an enjoyable fantasy adventure film. It's sad to think that a lot of churchgoing children may never see this picture simply because their parents may disagree with some subtle message about not trusting what establishment says just because they've been around for hundreds of years, as if it really makes a difference. Hell, I'm anti-religion and I didn't boycott The Chronicles of Narnia.
But onto the movie! The Golden Compass, based on the first book of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, is a story about a young girl on an alternate Earth where every human has their own daemon, an animal representation of their spirit. This kindred bond is an important part of their humanity, and thus is a cornerstone of the story. This girl - we'll call her Lyra for the sake of this summary and because that's her name in the movie - is a curious one, and after she overhears her uncle (James Bond... er, I mean Daniel Craig) talking about a mysterious substance called Dust that allows people to reach other alternate universes, she gets scooped up in an adventure she never wanted to take. Hoping to go north, she instead finds herself on the run from a rich but scheming child kidnapper (Nicole Kidman) who works on behalf of the strict government. Aided by a band of rebels, an aeronaut and a dethroned polar bear king, Lyra fights to save her friends, find her uncle and uncover the truth.
The Golden Compass is an ambitious movie to say the least, and while it doesn't always click perfectly, it's an enjoyable and engaging movie. The film is not for little children and has even been rated PG-13 for some violence, though in reality the reason for the little kid warning is that the movie just isn't going to appeal to tiny tator tots. The story has a more mature feel to it, much like the later Harry Potter novels, and is definitely the opposite of The Chronicles of Narnia in more ways than one. From minute one, the movie is engrossing in that it's just so much different from anything else you'll see this year, and that feeling continues through to the ending credits.
That being said, the movie doesn't always feel as imaginative as you'd expect, though this may just be because of the story. After all, the characters are used to their "alternate" setting from the beginning, so there's no shock and awe as seen in the early Harry Potter movies. Still, some people may be put off by its rather serious look and feel, though this is more a personal preference than an all-around negative.
The only real problem I had with The Golden Compass is that it felt a bit rushed; certain scenes, especially the adventure/action scenes, seemed to come and go abruptly, as if director Chris Weitz was worried about properly transitioning into said scenes for sake of boring the audience. Another fifteen minutes or so could have really fleshed out the movie, given a few characters a bit more depth and made the film a lot more suspenseful. The movie is never boring by any means, but it does lack some tension and build-up. There is one scene where Craig is out in the middle of nowhere and is suddenly attacked; we've barely had time to adjust to this setting and the director has already hit us up with action we weren't expecting. Then, at the end, there's a relatively big battle, but the film lacks the exciting build-up that similar movies, including Narnia, managed to create.
Nevertheless, The Golden Compass is an entertaining, enjoyable fantasy film. Forget the religious controversy: just go and watch it for what it is. Of course, if you like movies that bash religion, there are certainly moments that do bash Christianity. Either way, The Golden Compass is a pretty good entry into the fantasy genre.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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