The Golden Compass (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
If you pay attention to entertainment headlines, you're probably aware some religious groups have worked themselves into a lather over The Golden Compass. Armed with the knowledge author Philip Pullman on whose His Dark Materials trilogy Compass is based is an avowed atheist, the Catholic League and others have sounded the alarm that the big-screen fantasy targeted at younger audiences could be a gateway drug to abandoning faith.
As it turns out, no one really needed to be quite so concerned. It's true that The Golden Compass, while not necessarily anti-God, is clearly anti-institutional religion. But The Golden Compass also manages to make heterodoxy as boring as ass.
Fans of Pullman's novels will insist that this must be a result of something being lost in translation, but that's not necessarily the case. Pullman mined familiar territory to create heroine Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old orphan living in an alternate universe where humans' souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animal-shaped companions called daemons.
Lyra is destined for an identity-defining quest, inspired by the potentially heretical investigations of her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), by the serial kidnappings of young children, and by her coming into possession of the mysterious, titular truth-telling device. From her home at a London college, Lyra travels north first with the glamorous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), and eventually with a group of "gyptians" (gypsies) eager to find their own lost children.
Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and his production team do a fine enough job of bringing Pullman's alternate London to life. A fantasy set in a world intended to be much like our own presents a unique challenge, but The Golden Compass looks distinctive without straining too hard.
Unfortunately, no one seemed to strain too hard to make the film compelling. Lyra herself, while clearly intended to be a spunky sort with a yen for adventure, never really develops a distinct personality nor does newcomer Richards leap off the screen with charismatic presence. She's surrounded by characters who similarly fill pre-assigned roles without ever coming to life.
Sam Elliott growls wearily as the balloon-flying Lee Scoresby; Craig provides a glowering intensity, but disappears for most of the story; Kidman never quite turns Mrs. Coulter into a truly threatening villain.
Even Iorek Byrnison the shamed, alcoholic warrior-bear who becomes Lyra's loyal protector feels like a rote fantasy type, in part thanks to the too-familiar voice of Ian McKellen.
But The Golden Compass truly falls flat thanks to its pacing. And, unlike many would-be fantasy epics, it's not because it overstays its welcome. Instead, Weitz chops the story into too many bite-sized chunks; the 114-minute running time never allows the narrative to develop any texture or sense of consequence. It's a brutal irony that, in an apparent quest not to bore younger viewers by taxing their attention span, Weitz has made something tedious.
As for the subtext, it's none-too-subtle. The Golden Compass presents an allegorical framework wherein adult knowledge is equated with original sin, and scientific challenges to orthodox belief are deemed a threat. But for such a notion to work its nefarious powers on impressionable minds, it needs to be engaging.
There's no need to fear for the soul of anyone who's dozing off in the seat next to you.