"Three stars (PG-13)
I’ve never been much on mythic-quest-in-an-elaborately-constructed-mystical-world movies. Mind you, I always go into the theater with an open mind — that’s my job — but I have scant interest in learning all the exotically-named races, subcultures and locations made up by some author to add verisimilitude to his or her fantasy, not to mention the history and rules for the place. Hell, I don’t know nearly enough about what’s up in Africa and South America, so why clutter my overstuffed noggin with pretend facts about fictitious lands and cultures?
Accordingly, when I go to see the first installment of any Lord of the Harry Potter in Narnia-style movie, I don’t try to sort out who’s who and what’s what, I just sit back and let the movie wash over me. If it’s one of the good ones, I’ll get pulled in by the story and pick up the essential background information painlessly along the way.
The Golden Compass, based on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, starts off slowly as it strives to establish the fundamentals of its world. I won’t burden you with the particulars. Suffice to say, all the humans have talking animal sidekicks that are manifestations of their souls. The story focuses on Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), an adventurous girl who is given a Golden Compass that can discern the truth about pretty much anything. Needless to say, lots of people would like to get their hands on it.
Lyra ends up on a quest to the Arctic to save her best friend. Chasing her is a regal bitch (Nicole Kidman) and various creeps involved in a plot to snatch children. Helping her are a witch (Eva Green), a cowboy pilot (Sam Elliott) and an armored polar bear (Ian McKellen). Daniel Craig appears briefly as Lyra’s globetrotting relative.
There is much, much more to the tale and director Chris Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie), who wrote the screenplay, deals with this by having various characters incorporate the back story into their conversations. The Golden Compass has too many of those leaden conversations, but what’s good about the film overshadows what isn’t. As Lyra, Dakota Blue Richards is charming in an earthy way. I liked her directness and enjoyed watching her journey. The polar bears are well-rendered and have the sense of weight that often is the undoing of computer-generated creations. Ian McKellen is appropriately thunderous as the main bear, with Ian McShane matching him as a beastly rival. Sam Elliott adds a welcome note of non-grimness as the cowboy pilot, and the Jules Verne-ish visuals are nice.
Aah, then there are the action scenes. When the fighting begins, you forget about all the blathering and simply enjoy yourself. There are some grand battles here, mostly in the second half, including an exceptionally cool bear vs. bear smack down.
A few hours after seeing the film, I got so juiced up describing the cool parts to a friend that I decided to give the movie three and a half stars. Then I remembered the excessive chatter and general clunkiness of the uncool parts and deducted half a star. The bottom line on The Golden Compass? Too much yakking, but the battle scenes are great. I’m looking forward to the next installment.