For anyone looking for a break from the high-profile, quaint dramas Hollywood is whipping up this awards season, The Golden Compass will feel like a breath of fresh air. Making an interesting directorial turn is Chris Weitz, who is known for making realistic comedies such as About a Boy, In Good Company, and American Pie. Here he brings to the screen the first novel in the His Dark Material Series by Phillip Pullman and unlike some directors who don’t seem to know what they’re doing in adapting fantasy novels (i.e. The Seeker: The Dark is Rising), and although I have not read the books myself, I will make the assumption based on the quality of the picture that Weitz does enough justice to the source material.

Nothing in the film is feasible from a director’s standpoint so the fact that a filmmaker new to the epic genre can show such solid execution is impressive. However, the film’s flaw is that Weitz gets a little carried away with focusing on moving the story forward and there are precious few scenes in which an aesthetic viewer can stop and breath in the beauty of the parallel universe the film is set in. This certainly takes nothing away from the film’s entertainment value as the film gradually gains momentum leading up to its humdinger of a finale and this flaw is easily forgivable as we can assume that the other two novels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, will make their way to the big screen in the upcoming years. Perhaps Weitz is giving us only a tasty sampling of what is to come.

Thematically quixotic in its ideas, The Golden Compass says a lot about our society, past and present. There is a vast amount of parallel universes to the one the film is set in. These universes are connected by a mysterious force known as dust. Thus there are those, the government that rules this universe in particular, known as the Magisterium, that would rather not know what’s beyond their own world and who want nothing more than to settle into an idyll. Then there are those, considered to be heretics, who are just too eager to explore beyond what they know. Similar to the world that 2006’s V for Vendetta is set in, the Magisterium controls everything and does all the people’s thinking for them. The world itself is filled with all kinds of beings: humans, warrior-like Ice Bears, Witches, and a race known as Gyptians. Each human and Gyptian has a daemon, a living reflection of themselves that takes the shape of an animal. It is their soul and conscience. A human cannot exist without a daemon and a daemon cannot exist without a human.

Our young rebellious hero that is soon to change this world is orphan girl Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a young attendant at Oxford’s Jordan College. Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, 2006’s Casino Royale) is one of these idealist who wants to explore the dust that has supposedly been seen to the north region where the Ice Bears live. The college board members, headed by Master (Jack Shepherd, 2006’s Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), vote to fund Asriel’s expedition. When the Magisterium hears of this they do all that is necessary to stop Asriel. Meanwhile, Master presents Lyra with an Alethiometer, a golden compass that is the key to discovering the parallel universes and according to a prophecy, Lyra is the only one who can read it. Lyra goes to live with Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman, The Invasion), a Magisterial spy interested in Lyra because she is Asriel’s niece. Lyra learns that Marisa is part of a Magisterial conspiracy that explains the sudden disappearances of children. Knowing this, Lyra, along with her daemon Pan (voiced by Freddie Highmore, Arthur and the Invisibles), flees with the help of a group of Gyptians and sets off on a quest to find her uncle while doing all that is possible to keep the Magisterium from obtaining the Alethiometer.

What a find newcomer Dakota Blue Richards turned out to be. The film lives or dies on her performance and she steps up to the plate and knocks her role right out of the park. The headlined cast members are surprisingly scarcely used and Richards is asked to carry the majority of the picture on her back. She may be a first time actress but she has the poise and composure of Dakota Fanning. Nicole Kidman as Marisa Coulter is stunning in her best performance in over two years. There’s a scene at the climax that reveals something rather shocking between Lyra and Marisa and with the chemistry between the two actresses, they hit the nail on the head.

There are several interesting characters Lyra meets along the way that help her in her quest. Most notable is a sullen Ice Bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand), who is an exile from his original milieu. Iorek’s own little tale in this whole ordeal is compelling in it’s own right as he lives in shame and receives the opportunity to redeem himself while gaining a new friend in Lyra. Also along for the ride is Lee Scoresby, (Sam Elliot) a cowboy-like figure who is a dead-eye with any kind of fire arm in his hand. Elliot (almost identically resembling the character he played in the atrocious Ghost Rider) is pitch perfect as Scoresby and delivers the most memorable dialogue. Disappointingly underused are the two stars who lit up the screen in Casino Royale, Daniel Craig and Eva Green. Craig is in the film predominantly at the beginning and Green doesn’t get any valuable screen time until the climax. Again, this is a forgivable flaw as we can expect see much more of them in the sequels.

On the technical side of things, The Golden Compass is a near master work of art with gorgeous set pieces and wide shots that rival The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter series, and The Chronicles of Narnia. The cinematography by Henry Braham is lavishly eye-popping and all the work by the special effects and art departments is top-notch. All of this is put on display in an entirely computer generated sequence that involves two Ice Bears in a fight to the death that is the epitome of awe-inspiring entertainment. Compliments should also be given to costume designer Ruth Myers as Nicole Kidman has never looked so ravishing in a gold dress. Simply put, this is as good-looking of a film as you’ll find this year or any other for that matter and it is accompanied by a music score by Alexandre Desplat (2006’s The Queen) that is more than suitable for the genre.

The Golden Compass is epic in it’s scope of ideas and yet somehow manages to clock in under two hours. It’s funny how so often we complain about a film being too long in running length, but here, because the movie is so plot-oriented, I wanted there to be an extra 15-20 minutes just to be able to appreciate the beauty of it all. That’s why The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are the cream of the crop in the fantasy genre, because every last possible detail is beautifully welded onto the screen. Will the His Dark Materials series be able to compete with or dare I say transcend the aforementioned epic fantasies? Only time will tell, but it’s off to a good start by simply being much better than the norm. Hopefully when viewers revisit this universe, they will have much, much more to discover.

Grade: B+

The Golden Compass Poster Release Date: December 7, 2007
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence.
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ian McKellen, Eva Green
Director: Chris Weitz
Screenplay: Chris Weitz (screenplay), Philip Pullman (novel)
Studio: New Line Cinema
Official Website: Click Here

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