Watching THE GOLDEN COMPASS

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SPOILER ALERT: There may be minor spoilers in the body of this review, and a major one at the end, which I’ll separate by a large gap, in case you just want to read the rest.

There is magic in this film, not just in the storyline, but in the way it’s presented. It has some flaws, but I liked it quite a lot. Despite a few reviews I read before going, I thought it all worked well, and there were no slow or dull spots for me.

The film is, of course, based on a popular epic fantasy novel by Philip Pullman which I also liked very much. It’s a large book, and the film has to pare things down, but I thought they did a fine job of capturing the main characters, storyline and settings. One of the best things about the book is the concept of daemons, a sort of magical animal familiar that each and every person on the Earth of this story is partnered with. An enchanting idea — who wouldn’t want to have one? But it’s not just window dressing, it’s part of the core concept of the book, making it all the more compelling at the end, when those partnerships are threatened. The daemons are so terrifically handled visually that I kept forgetting they weren’t real. The only problem is when a daemon speaks, it sounds like a person, and I sometimes couldn’t tell it was the daemon speaking. With the size difference, their mouths were often too small to spot them moving in speech, too.

The story, and the film, begins in an alternate version of Oxford, England, which I particularly enjoyed because I’d just been there last May. Parts of Oxford are pretty enchanting in our world too, and they made use of some of the best ones. Other differences between that world and ours are revealed visually, but not in a labored way, and there are no lumps of exposition to explain them, we just get to observe and wonder. I like that.

Our featured viewpoint character is Lyra Belacqua, a charming tomboy perfectly played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who obviously has all of Oxford wrapped around her little finger. Enter the elegant Mrs. Coulter, also portrayed perfectly by Nicole Kidman, who is not afraid to play to her ice-queen looks for this role. She befriends Lyra, but we and she are suspicious almost from the start, and with good reason.

The device itself, the Golden Compass is well-used and shown. In fact, I thought the way they depicted Lyra using it, with sparkling fragmented images giving clues to what it was telling her, but not spelling it out, was another great use of special effects in the film. So much better than having it all plain as day.

The plot thickens, everyone wants Lyra and her Compass, Lyra’s friends are being snatched away and taken to an experimental compound in the frozen north, and she and her allies set off to find them. Along the way Lyra befriends a warrior polar bear, well-voiced by Ian McKellan, and an American cowboy aerialist played by Sam Elliott, both great additions. There are battles in the snow and ice, and revelations galore as Lyra finally finds her friends.

Okay, here’s a space after which I’ll discuss a MAJOR SPOILER plot element.
















It’s been a while since I read the book, ten years I think, but when the film came to a rather odd end, I knew there should have been more. When I got home I checked and saw that, of the three major sections of the novel, only the first two are in the movie. So, really, there isn’t much resolution to some of the main storyline, it’s all left hanging. I’m assuming that, if GC does well, the next film will begin with part three of the book, but nothing is said to confirm that at the end of the film itself. I can see why they might have made that choice — better to tell some of the story well than try to cram it all in to two hours. But a very odd way to end the film.

I came out of it happy with what I saw, though, and if you’re a Pullman fan I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. If you’re just a fan of fantasy films, you’ll probably be happy too, just a little puzzled when it’s all over.

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