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Review

Controversial ‘Golden Compass’ a mediocre adaptation of children’s book

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December 13, 2007

The Golden Compass” has already earned economic and commercial success as yet another in a slew of big budget fantasy novel rip-offs. Thanks to an avalanche of adaptations, the film is just another flight-of-fancy, a CGI-enhanced romp through mystical realms of talking animals and painted vistas. But what separates “Compass” is the frenzied congregation of parents and religious zealots denouncing the movie for the amoral and atheistic implications of the book.

Director/Writer Chris Weitz has remained fairly accurate to author Phil Pullman’s source material. The film houses many of the virtues of a faithful film adaptation, but atheists will be quick to point out the film is missing the insidiously dark metaphor of a twisted overlord institution: the Church. There is still a bevy of symbolism, but viewers will be hard-pressed to find the doctrine of a false God that has wrought so much controversy unto the novel.

Set against a sprawling multiverse containing a multitude of mirror-image realities, “Compass” centers around the world of young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a place wherein a human’s soul is not an idea but a tangible Daemon-familiar that travels alongside a person in the form of an animal. The scholars at her mock-Oxford school speculate Lyra to be a girl of prophecy. Given a pensive little object called an alethiometer, a golden compass looking toy that reveals the truth, Lyra is thrust into an adventure that will decide the fate of all reality.

Though “Compass” shies away from religious undertones, it does still weave out a cautious warning personified by its all-powerful Magesterium, a collection of totalitarian beaurocrats that seek to usurp free-will and choice—more a slight against powerful governments than church.

This notion of free will is at the heart of “Compass” and is given voice within the Daemons scurrying about each frame. These furry representations of man’s ability to choose are given life by the cinemas own God of choice: CGI. Sadly, “Compass” prays at that alter a bit too much, leaving barely any breathing room for its real actors.

This overabundance of animation is compounded by too many useless asides. A thrilling segment in the ice-bear kingdom becomes a product-placement distraction as viewers expect the all too familiar looking polar bears to offer out frosty Coca-Colas, and the fortuitous presence of witch’s in the climactic battle appears to have been conjured up from the covens of the deus ex machina.

Even the acting in the film teeter-totters. Nicole Kidman glides across the screen a milky-white goddess of treachery, almost glowing in her wickedness as she attempts to pervert poor Lyra. Young Richards, however, lurches across the screen, proving she was rushed into too much limelight too quickly.

Released five years ago “Compass” could have been a creative pioneer, but it is released now amidst a stale sea of mediocre fantasy farce. It caters to too many clichés of the genre and has its noticeable flaws, but there is still enough intrigue in the subtext to keep most viewers interested at least once. 

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.