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His Dark Materials Trilogy
(The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass)
by Philip Pullman
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"The Golden Compass" (Aka, "His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass")
Every so often a film comes along whose production values are state of the art. "The Golden Compass" serves that fine service estimably well with visuals that are, frame to frame, stunning, and serve the inter-related universes it portrays with astonishingly rich detail. It's an eyeful!
Which is not to take anything away from writer-director Chris Weitz' adaptation of the first part of Philip Pullman's 1995 trilogy, nor for his superb casting. As for CGI effects employed to make animal creatures (from a parallel universe) seem real, it's never been done better that I can recall.
Pullman's epic battle is a standin for current events in the real world: the struggle for supremacy between church and state, with some factions of the former trying to impose their doctrine on the country and re-write the constitution; and, the latter, the world of free choice fighting for freedom and against bigotry and church strongarming. And so we get an inkling why aggressive parts of the righteous right in America has risen up against the film and the message it conveys.
The symbol of freedom in this faraway land (looking a lot like England) is the presence of animals, known as daemons, which accompany every human. These are not just pets but the person's identification with themselves from a parallel universe. They think, feel and sense like the human, providing companionship but, more importantly, an extension of themselves as one's essence, or "soul."
Separated by the evil process of "excision" the human would lose individual thought and become virtual slaves of whoever rules, which is precisely what the sinister and grandly attired Magisterium Emissary (Derek Jacoby, "Gosford Park") is striving to do with the whole of the younger generation in order to attain the country's unquestioned power. This immoral purpose is being accomplished by their mob of enforcers whom the kids refer to as "Gobblers." These thugs snatch kids off the streets to be "cut" from their daemons in a futuristic laboratory machine.
Little Lyra Belacqua (feature-debuting Dakota Blue Richards) becomes the central prize as the 12-year old niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, "Casino Royale"), the scientist whose college-funded study of the strange and mysterious "Dust" that pervades the universes makes him their primary enemy. An understanding and possible harnessing of the Dust is a threat to the institution of the Magisterium.
Then, there's the last remaining alethiometer, a fantastic instrument which tells the truth in any circumstance, but only if the user can set its three needles on the correct symbols and learns to interpret its results. To that person, hidden agendas, lies and hints of future events are revealed -- a device subversive to the Magisterium's deceptions -- one which they can't possibly tolerate. When they learn that Lyra is in possession of this Golden Compass, efforts to capture her are redoubled.
Enter the highly fashionable Femme Fatalle Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, "The Interpreter") with all her wiles and stratagems to take control of the naive little girl who suspects nothing. During a dinner celebration of the college's decision to fund Lord Asriel's project, Lyra becomes fascinated with this woman, thinking Mrs. Coulter a person who can teach her much. But, that's until she learns the biggest lesson of all.
At that very moment, while Lyra is spinning her web of deception, Lyra's friends Roger (Ben Walker) and Billy Costa (Charlie Rowe) are being taken by the Gobblers. As they have sworn an oath to come to each other's rescue if caught, Lyra vows to fulfill her promise despite all the dangers facing her and daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore) whom she calls Pan. Being young, Pan can change his shape to appear as any animal he chooses.
But there is much danger afoot. She has already witnessed the depths of Fra Pavel's (Simon McBurney) iniquity when he attempted to poison Asriel, an act which Lyra thwarted. But on her side are Asriel's allies, the Gyptians, led by John Faa (Jim Carter). Crucial to her journey is roughshod Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) whom she meets in Trollesund and who has a greater understanding of her quest than she realizes. He offers his help, but first must deal with a friend's plight.
The friend turns out to be one lorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), an armored ice bear known as Panserbjorne, from Svalbard. When Scoresby and Lyra visit, he's armor-less, engaged in mechanical work, for which he's paid in whiskey, a soporific for the disgrace of the virtual bondage he's fallen into. Byrnison should rightfully be king of the Panserbjorne, a fact that Lyra confirms with her alethiometer. Persuaded by the precocious little girl with the promise to find his armor, he enters a contract to help her rescue her mates and return to homeland Bolvangar for a spectacular beast-to-beast fight to reclaim his throne.
While there are many voices downgrading this movie as being disappointing, one has to wonder if these critics set their expectations too high. Because "The Chronicles of Narnia" was such a huge boxoffice hit and there was a talking lion in it, and there's a talking ice bear in this, there seems to have been a hope that this should have comparable monetary projections. The two films can't be compared that way for a lot of reasons which I won't go into. But what I enjoyed in "The Golden Compass," besides the aforementioned visual feast, is its story line clarity, its commanding characters both human and not, originality of atmosphere and tensions worthy of good drama.
In other words, there are enough reasons to rate it a stellar piece of work!
~~ Jules Brenner