The Golden Compass is a fantasy epic based on the first book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, a series the author reportedly intended to serve as the "anti-Narnia," inspired by his disdain for C.S. Lewis's Christian-themed children's novels. But on the big screen, director Chris Weitz's messy adaptation functions more like a Narnia Lite, with all of the talking animals and visual splendor but none of the depth or narrative coherence of 2005's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
The movie begins with a tidy summary of the main tenets of the Dark Materials mythology. The characters of The Golden Compass exist in a parallel universe, much like our own but with a few key exceptions. For example, the soul of every person is embodied in an animal companion, called a "Daemon," that reflects each individual's true nature and accompanies them at all times. In addition to establishing the movie's universe, such details also serve as convenient storytelling shortcuts. While the good guys' souls are represented by puppies, rabbits and other friendly creatures, the villains' Daemons are typically insects, rodents and the like.
This kind of heavy-handed symbolism is present throughout The Golden Compass. The movie's infamous anti-religion tone (the target of various misguided protests) is embodied by the Magisterium, a small group of secretive elites who "tell people what to do" (actual dialogue from the film) and reside in -- wait for it -- an ivory tower. Like the Dark Age Catholic Church, the Magisterium is determined to thwart any and all scientific advancements that might threaten their hegemony over the populace. The latest target of their ire is Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), a brilliant academician whose groundbreaking research into a life-giving substance known as "dust" naturally vexes them. Soon a hit is ordered on the would-be Galileo, a fact our plucky protagonist, Asriel's ten-year-old niece Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), discovers while hiding in her uncle's office.
Lyra's got problems of her own. Her pals seem to be disappearing left and right, kidnapped by Magisterium goons known as "Gobblers" and shipped off to some sort of re-education camp in the Arctic. Lyra isn't about to let her buddies suffer such a terrible fate, of course, and soon she's on her way to the North Pole to save them, armed with a truth-telling device known as an Alethiometer.
From there the plot of The Golden Compass gets progressively convoluted, with polar bears, witches, gypsies and Nicole Kidman all entering the fray. Craig, on the other hand, essentially disappears for the final two-thirds of the film. The movie's multi-layered story is filled with gaping holes, as if entire sequences were exised for the sake of running time, making the final product a bewildering mess. Though The Golden Compass does have its moments -- and is at times genuinely beautiful -- no amount of CGI wizardry, inspirational speeches or bear-on-bear action can save the movie from collapsing under the weight of its many structural flaws.
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