The hullabaloo surrounding any “anti-religious” theme to Philip Pullman’s 1995 His Dark Materials trilogy takes a distant backseat to screenwriter/director Chris Weitz’s spotty filmic adaptation. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards plays Lyra Belacqua, a 12-year-old orphan raised at Oxford college under the supervision of her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), a scientist and explorer intent on traveling to the Arctic Circle to examine golden dust that connects mystical worlds.
Coincidentally, a Nazi-like group called the Magisterium (a reference to the Roman Catholic teaching authority) has been kidnapping children and spiriting them off to a compound in the Arctic to separate the youth from their daemons (souls) which manifest as alter ego pets that can change species, at least until the child’s personality becomes fixed. Lyra is inexplicably and secretly given the last Golden Compass (also called an Alethiometer), a device that ascertains the underlying truth to any question asked of it.
With no idea of how to use the compass, Lyra is an easy mark for the slinky and cunning Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who makes off with the rebellious girl and her furry daemon (voiced by Freddie Highmore) to steal the compass for the Magisterium’s use. Unmotivated chase scenes and erratically violent fight sequences punctuate the story’s time warp setting that seems to fall somewhere between World Wars I and II.
When Lyra escapes Mrs. Coulter’s diabolical clutches, she befriends a group of gypsies called “gyptians.” The name causes confusion and consternation whenever it’s used. Serafina (Eva Green) is a friendly “witch,” although she seems more like a fairy who periodically visits Lyra to help her on her journey.
Sam Elliott pulls his trademark cowboy duty as Lee Scorseby, a balloon aviator who points Lyra toward a polar bear named Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen), ostensibly to protect her. But Iorek serves mainly to grind a personal axe against the North’s polar bear king Ragnar (Ian McShane).
The CGI daemons (cartoon monkey, rat, rabbit and cat) are strictly second-rate in a movie inevitably about war at a time when most audiences are battle-fatigued from the world’s tumultuous state of affairs. None of the characters attract anywhere near the level of empathy that accompanied those of The Chronicles of Narnia, much less the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
However entertaining the literary source material for The Golden Compass might be, we never get a sense of how the quirky clockwork device is used to secure and protect the ideal of “free will” that Pullman poses as the highest value for his protagonists. The Golden Compass is designed to open the way for sequels, but judging from the poor quality of the first bloated installment it hardly seems an endeavor worth pursuing. MTW