It’s a bit Cliffs Notes-y, I can say as a fan of Philip Pullman’s fiction, a fan not just of the story he’s telling in his fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials but of the simple, handsome elegance of his prose too. To be fair, screenwriter and director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) has taken a sprawling story with a large number of players and condensed it extraordinarily well, combining characters and compressing events in such a way that the adventure is not at all diminished, nor are Pullman’s powerful underlying themes of the importance of freethought and the vitality of an inquisitive, playful soul. All the essential elements of the story are here… they just feel a bit rushed, as if this were a tourist’s perspective on the escapades of Lyra Belacqua. If it’s 30 minutes into the film, this must be the fun-with-Mrs.-Coulter segment, as it were.
I understand why this is the case. The Golden Compass, the movie, could have been a more leisurely three-hour symphony, one that captured visually the grounded but poetic expressiveness of Pullman’s writing. But this ain’t Lord of the Rings, aimed at grownup literature geeks and fantasy nerds: it’s meant to be a two-hour family film, one with a little something for everyone from eight to eighty. If things had to be a bit crammed in and other things had to be elided over, however neatly and efficiently in the process, so be it.
All that said, this is a magnificent slice of cinematic fantasy, perhaps the most perfect blending of live action and CGI ever. As it must be for it to work. Young Lyra lives on an Earth just slightly to the side of ours, one in which humans keep their souls on the outsides of their bodies in the form of animal familiars called “daemons” — this is so fundamental an aspect of Pullman’s fiction, his people actually dual creatures of human-and-daemon, that if we couldn’t believe this, we couldn’t believe any of it. Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, morphs his form — as all daemons of children do until they “settle” on one animal shape at adolescence — so beautifully as a CGI creation that he does indeed feel like an outward manifestation of Lyra’s personality, and there’s such character in his face, particularly in his favorite form as an ermine, that it seems impossible that he’s not real.
And the bears! The bears!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Orphaned Lyra (an auspicious debut by 12-year-old Dakota Blue Richards) lives a mostly unfettered life in the rambling world of Jordan College at Oxford University, looked over by the gentleman scholars at the behest of one Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig: The Invasion, Casino Royale), her remote and enigmatic uncle. Strange things are afoot: Asriel comes to Jordan to seek funding for an urgent exploratory trip to the mysterious North for reasons Lyra doesn’t understand — something to do with a substance called Dust — except to know that she wants to go along. This is refused, of course, but adventure of another kind comes calling when one of the college’s patrons, the sleek and sinister Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman: The Invasion, Happy Feet), adopts Lyra as her personal assistant — Mrs. Coulter, chance would have it, is also planning an expedition north, and that is all Lyra needs to know to sign on.
Though Lyra does not, of course, realize it, her new restlessness and curiosity about the larger world outside Jordan College is adolescence come knocking, and the wondrous thing about The Golden Compass — based on the first book of Pullman’s trilogy — is that it is an archetypal hero’s journey with a girl-child at its center, as its hero. This is a rare, rare thing: usually only the boys get to embark on such a grand and significant exploration of their own growing-up selves. Lyra is the literary sister of Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker (among many others), a secretly powerful child once hidden away and now blossoming into her power and yearning to break free of the protections that have coddled her. And the One Ring and the Force have their match in the alethiometer, the “golden compass,” a truth-telling device that comes into Lyra’s possession exactly when she needs it most, and when she is at exactly the right point in her own self-discovery to be able to use it. It will be her guide and comfort through encounters with Gobblers, child thieves and masters of ominous scientific experimentation; with panserbjorn, the intelligent, sentient armored bears of the North; with witches and aeronauts and gyptians and with truths about herself and her life of which she had no previous inkling.
Lyra is learning to become her own person: learning to think for herself. And this is what has some Christian fundamentalists like the Catholic League sputtering over The Golden Compass: author Pullman is a vocal atheist, and his fiction is forcefully, eloquently antiauthority — the attitude is very slightly more specifically anti religious authority in the books, but the point is still, well, pointed here. “There will always be freethinkers and heretics unless we deal with the root of the problem,” the head of the Magisterium, the ruling power of Lyra’s world, intones portentously — cracking down on such is the crux around which the action of the story revolves. If there’s one overarching theme that The Golden Compass harks on, it’s not “there is no God” but “authority brainwashes you on its way to stealing your soul.”
Think of the children! comes the cry of those would prevent impressionable children from seeing this delightful, if hurried, movie. Indeed. Imagine what horrors should befall them if we were to let them think for themselves. They might even be moved to read the book the film is based upon.