Friday, December 7, 2007

This Compass Points in All Sorts of Directions

When viewed with the wrong attitude, all fantasy is nonsense. Elves, witches, wizards—these things don't exist in real life, and certain people refuse to accept them as fictional constructs as well. These certain people I speak of are rubes, churls, killjoys. So why did writer/director Chris Weitz feel the need to give them "The Golden Compass?" The film lets them sit back and smirk—the film makes their argument for them.

While I'm unfamiliar with Philip Pullman's popular and controversial source novel, there's no denying that the resulting film adaptation is pure nonsense—nonsense posing as repetitive exposition, nonsense disguised as bad computer animation, nonsense as the basis for a cursory plot. The movie takes place in a parallel universe, see, and the worlds are connected through dust. I'd be happy to leave it at that, but the characters are obsessed with it. They want to kill the dust or love the dust or moisten the dust, depending on their outlook and circumstances.

I didn't care about the dust, I just wanted to know what the people in the story felt and what they were trying to accomplish. It's apparent enough that young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is simultaneously running from Miss Coulter (Nicole Kidman), and trying to rescue her friend Roger (Ben Walker), whom Miss Coulter kidnapped. But why exactly is Miss Coulter kidnapping children all the time? To stop the dust, of course.

Miss Coulter is part of the Magesterium, a government organizations who believes they can do whatever they want, but that everyone else shouldn't be afforded the same right. That's all well and good, but the film rushes through the story so quickly that we don't really feel any impact of the oppression. Even the kidnapping is glossed over.

In story's universe, souls are on the outside of bodies instead of the inside. They take the form of poorly computer-animated animals called daemons who have an uncanny knack for stating the obvious. For example, if I lived in this universe and some thugs jumped me in an alleyway, stabbed me, and stole my money, my little chipmunk daemon might declare, "Psst. Hey Jeremy—those people weren't very nice! They stabbed you and stole your money. Also, we're in an alleyway. They jumped you. They looked like thugs to me."

Lyra's shape-shifting daemon, Pan (voiced by Freddie Highmore), excels in this exercise. When Lyra tries to infiltrate an evil lair, he lets his human counterpart know that she shouldn't use her real name. When a character says something that Lyra and the audience know to be untrue, he pipes in, "Liar!"

To aid her in her voyage, Lyra meets a group of anti-Magisterium sea folks, an aeronaut named Lee (Sam Elliot) and a drunken polar bear named Lorek (voiced by Ian McKellen). The quality of Lorek's CG animation almost equals that of the Coca Cola bear. Polar bears don't have daemons, they have armor. When Lyra meets Lorek, he doesn't have his armor because the townsfolk stole it.

Luckily, Lyra has the only golden compass in the world, and is the only person who can read it. She asks it a question, the compass answers by pointing at a bunch of symbols. Turns out her ability to read it fulfills a prophesy or something—whatever, let's keep the plot moving. Where is the armor? Ih the town's most heavily guarded building—what a surprise. With a remarkable disregard for character explanation or storytelling, the film rushes through the motions of Lorek's transformation with the disinterest of a grade schooler writing a report on Andrew Jackson.

The film treats all its developments with the same slap-dash lack of wonder. Eva Green appears twice as a witch who, I'm told, wore very little clothes in the book. In the movie, we don't see enough of her, in both senses of the phrase. It's too bad, as Green's saucy persona might have brought a bit of liveliness to the sterile proceedings. And when a story like this is told without passion, it turns out looking like a bunch of nonsense.

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