'Compass' needs help getting bearings

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2007


  "The Golden Compass" New Line Cinema 1 hour, 53 minutes

"The Golden Compass"

New Line Cinema

1 hour, 53 minutes

There's no doubt that "The Golden Compass" is pegged to be the biggest kid's movie of the season but, to be honest, my enthusiasm for seeing it has swung wildly from north to south and back again since the previews started appearing some six months ago.

At first, it looked cool; a sci-fi fantasy that was a little youth-oriented, but maybe less kiddie than "Narnia." Then, upon further reflection, the whole thing started looking a little cheesy. My excitement cooled. Later, I heard that the religious right was calling for boycotts, and it occurred to me that maybe I should rethink my position. I mean, after all, if a kid's fantasy film can cause me to cast off my firmly-held beliefs and fall headlong into atheism, maybe there's something here worth taking another look at. Finally, I had reason to go to a kid's movie this week because I finally have a kid to take. My son was born last Tuesday (thank you, thank you) and I figured it was time to start his indoctrination. No, not into science-fiction atheism, but into the glorious church of the cinema.

I have to say, this week's sermon, though certainly pretty to look at, was one of the most scattered, ridiculous, and needlessly complicated I have been subjected to in a long time. I don't mean to make light of anyone's fears about hidden, anti-religious messages in children's programming, but trust me, if this movie causes you to lose your faith, you were on pretty shaky ground to begin with. The story revolves around a child, her animal-spirit companion, a "truth-telling" compass, an armored, yet alcoholic polar bear, an evil "Big Brother"-style agency, some kind of space dust, pirates, witches, wolf-armies, child-snatching Gobblers, and a whole bunch of parallel universes. And that's just the stuff you can understand.

Lyra Belacqua is a very special child. Though an orphan, she has the run of the University. One day, she is given a very special gift an Alethiometer, a legendary golden compass that ... oh, forget it. There's no point in trying to lay out the plot, because by the end of the movie, after all the side trips, noisy battles, and byzantine political maneuverings, you'll be at least as confused as the befuddled audience at the Sunday night showing we went to.

The problem is that the story is simply too dense. Perhaps it's simply a matter of concepts that just don't really translate from the page to the screen. For example: the opening exposition takes a few seconds to lay out that this story exists in a parallel universe where, unlike we, who keep our souls snuggled up inside our bodies, the people of this world travel with their souls outside, in the form of cute (or menacing, depending on the person) animal companions. I can see where, in writing, this would give you a whole bunch of funny little characters to work with, but up on the big screen it just made every scene crowded. Every time a bunch of kids would run by in a herd, I kept thinking someone's puppy-soul was going to get stomped. Like this, most of the fantasy elements of the film are pointless.

"The Golden Compass" feels less like a legitimate stand-alone fantasy than a mishmash of a dozen other mythologies, from "Lord of the Rings" to "Harry Potter" to the old west, to those Coca-Cola polar bear commercials. To make things even more confusing, the rules of nomenclature seemed to apply at random. Sometimes names seemed Latin, other times German, other times nonsense. Gypsies are here called Gyptians, and are actually pirates. Cute soul-creatures have single, fantasy sounding names, but all the polar bears all have first and last names, sounding more like Swedish shopkeepers than the fierce battle bears of the north, adorned with their soul-armor forged from "sky-iron."

And worst of all, the film takes little to no time to orient the viewer. I felt like I walked into part four of a 10-part series. The only really positive thing I can say about it, aside from the beautiful effects, is that it's not anti-religious. It could be called vaguely anti-Catholic, but even that's a stretch.

However, it's very pro-spirituality, so I'm not sure what there is to protest, other than the fact that the film is completely nonsensical.

When it's all said and done, I'm glad I went, if only so I can say that my son saw (actually snoozed through) his first movie when he was just four days old. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the biggest train wrecks of the year so far, but I hope he doesn't lose faith. Hope springs eternal that the next one will be great.

Grade: D

"The Golden Compass" is rated PG-13 for violence and frightening situations involving children.

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