Rebellion and the franchise: the parallel world of The Golden Compass

Ever since the first Star Wars came out in 1977, filmmakers have tried to start franchises because every sequel and action figure and fast food tie-in can be endlessly profitable (the Harry Potter series just recently eclipsed James Bond in making money). So now that the controversial Golden Compass movie has arrived, I went to see it reluctantly. With its ice queen, faun, and talking beavers, Narnia was annoying enough.

Thanks mostly to its 1920s parallel universe set design, I confess I liked the film more than I expected to. Many high level stars circle around the central orphan child Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Richards), so the film has an amusing playfulness in its casting. Care to see Eva Green as a witch? How about a glimpse of Daniel Craig wearing a trim beard and an Oxford tweed suit as Lord Asriel? The Golden Compass throws out movie stars like chicken feed, often wasting them, of course, but there’s some pleasure in watching them reduced to bit parts. As the soon-to-be evil Marisa Coulter, Nicole Kidman struts out into a very Harry Potter-esque eating hall of the parallel universe’s Jordan College, sits down with Lyra, and just emits movie star wattage as if to make up for her lack of characterization. In this world, most everyone has an externalized soul or daemon, a computer generated image of an animal spirit that accompanies one wherever one goes. Children’s daemons can change into different shapes, so Lyra’s turns into a cat, a mouse, an ermine, and a moth at will. Coulter has a creepy golden monkey. Lord Asriel has a big snow leopard.

With the compressed storyline taken from a Phillip Pullman fantasy novel and its rebellion against organized religion, The Golden Compass flirts with revolt. The oppressive Magisterium government might have correlations with the Catholic Church, but they are hard to notice here. Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, wants to investigate northern magic dust that can connect you to the parallel universes. The Magisterium does not like such heretical research, so one of their functionaries, Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney), tries to poison Asriel’s favorite wine. Fortunately, Lyra warns her uncle just in time. Since New Line cinema didn’t want some Catholic League of Decency banning the film, they’ve greatly reduced Phillip Pullman’s version of the Magisterium to just bits and pieces of menace, mostly Derek Jacobi looking like some Lord of the Inquisition and crying out “Heresy!” at odd moments of the film. Fra Pavel’s chief sign of evil is his atrocious comb-over haircut.

For no particular reason, somebody gives Lyra a nice alethiometer, or golden compass that can tell her the “secret at the heart of things that evade the authorities.” One wearies of children in fantasy storylines who are handed royalty or magical powers without doing anything to deserve it, but Lyra shows spunk and enough conniving intelligence to make her election as the “One” more plausible. She’s whisked off in a dirigible to some city where she learns that Marisa Coulter is an evil henchwoman for the Gobblers, a shady organization devoted to kidnapping children and experimenting on them in some ghastly compound up in the frozen north where you’d expect Santa’s workshop to be. Escaping from Coulter and pursued by Gobblers, Lyra finds refuge with sympathetic Gyptians who take her on a ship to Norroway so she can find a fighting polar bear. The big burly king of the Gyptians, John Faa (Jim Carter), reminded me of some pirate in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. He makes a stirring speech about the kidnapping, the music soars along with the swelling sails of their ship, and I realized that the soundtrack is too loud and bombastic at times.

Once in the northern frontier town of Trollesund, Lyra quickly befriends a drunken bear sadly bereft of his armor. Also, oddly enough, she runs into Sam Elliot as Texan Aeronaut Lee Scoresby. Ever since he appeared in the classic The Big Lebowski, Elliot plays the exact same iconic cowboy figure. Now, somewhat like Hans Solo of the original Star Wars, Scoresby’s looking to get his flying ship out of hock, so he also helps out Lyra in her quest to save the kidnapped children. I liked Scoresby’s daemon, a large jackrabbit with an incongruous female Texan accent.

With its daemons, its “particle metaphysics,” and fighting bears who don’t really bleed, The Golden Compass proves willing to throw any fantastic creature into its stew, thereby transforming the Pullman novel into a restrained and yet flamboyant CGI concoction. Intent upon recouping their 180$ million investment, New Line studios don’t really show much courage, but some subversive hint of the novel gets through, and that’s what makes the film watchable.