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by Kathi Maio

Heretical Dustup... Or Simple Dud?

I ENJOY A good conspiracy theory as much as the next person. So, as the release date for the New Line production of the first of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass (originally, Northern Lights), approached, I relished the spectacle of paranoid rants coming from all sides. The loudest voices came from certain Catholic and other Christian conservative groups that view Pullman's works and the associated film as a "diabolical revolt against God, bishops, and priests" designed to "bring millions of children into contact with the demonic." (Harry Potter fans will recognize the tenor of such denunciations.)

Yet, to be fair to the fundamentalist Catholic critics, just because they are paranoid, doesn't mean that the mild-mannered, Oxford-educated Pullman isn't out to get them. The His Dark Materials trilogy is, after all, a kind of inverted Paradise Lost, in which a young Eve called Lyra—an amazon warrior defending free will against authority—comes of age, crosses into alternate worlds, learns the truth about a doddering fraudulent god, gains transcendent sensual knowledge in a garden with her own version of Adam, and doesn't feel shame about a single thing.

Although he is obviously fascinated with the concept of soul/spirit and the essence of human nature, Mr. Pullman is certainly no admirer of dogmatic, monotheistic, authoritarian religion. And he makes this quite clear from the first chapter of The Golden Compass on.

Yet even after word got out that writer-director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) had expunged almost all clear religion references from his film, the condemnations of the movie didn't stop. The conspiracy theorists simply accused the film of being a big dangerous come-on—that is, "bait for the books."

Weitz and his studio were probably not thrilled by being labeled the cinematic equivalent of a gateway drug, but I doubt they were surprised by the accusation, either. Philip Pullman's own provocative statements in interviews—like when he pooh-poohed any nervousness about the Rowling/Potter series by claiming that his books are much more subversive since they are "about killing God"—helped maintain the status of The Golden Compass as a religiopolitical hot potato over these several years from pre-production to release.

Avid fantasy fans have been known to express strong opinions about movies based on deeply loved books, too. Therefore, Pullman aficionados also began to express their derision over the New Line project early on; especially after a Chris Weitz interview for a Pullman fan site (www.bridgetothestars.net) in 2004, when the filmmaker freely admitted that he would be required, largely because of corporate/economic considerations, to make "some modification of terms," removing the word church and expressing Pullman's views "in more subtle guises."

When Mr. Weitz first saw the growing firestorm about The Golden Compass coming at him from all directions, he made a rational move—he cut and ran. Whether it was newfound courage or a fistful of dollars that brought Chris Weitz—as first and third director of The Golden Compass—back to the project, I do not know. But I do feel for his no-win situation.

In the end, despite the numerous compromises, I think Chris Weitz really tried to honor the essence of his movie's original source material. And, all in all, he made an engrossing, well-constructed, and visually handsome film out of Mr. Pullman's long and complex novel.

Chris Weitz opens his film, as Mr. Pullman does his novel, in an alternate version of Oxford, England. Here a young orphan girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) hides in a wardrobe—take that, C. S. Lewis!—and quickly becomes involved in some very deadly adult political games. The focus of the research of her rather intense uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), seems to create worries among the scholars of Jordan College, and poisonous consternation among the powers that be, a group known as the Magisterium.

His research is to be conducted in the polar north, where a puzzling form of particulate matter, referred to as Dust, seems to flow through humans and offer a glimpse of possible other worlds. The Magisterium wishes to suppress such inquiries as heresy (religious reference alert!), while a mysterious beauty named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) seems to have her own interest in the Arctic region.

Before long, Lyra's childhood chum, Roger (Ben Walker), has been abducted by a nefarious group called the Gobblers, and Lyra, herself a runaway, sets out to assist in a rescue armed with the title magical truth compass, called an alethiometer, and comforted by the companionship of her dæmon, a sometime cat, sometime moth, sometime ermine named Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore).

Not wanting to get caught in the voiceover or fake dialogue over-exposition trap, dæmons are one of the many fantastical story elements that the filmmaker chooses not to explain completely. So much the better to allow the viewers to form their own opinion about what these animal familiars, common to all humans, represent. A physical manifestation of soul or id? Decide for yourself. Or simply let yourself be filled with envy that any human, in any universe, could be lucky enough to have a lifelong companion that is equal parts instigator and conscience, as well as a physical and emotional comforter par excellence.

Since many of the dæmons, like Lord Asriel's snow leopard, Stelmaria (voiced by Kristin Scott Thomas), are exotic animals, it goes without saying that these creature comforts are achieved through CGI. And one of the major triumphs of The Golden Compass is how well the film integrates the special effects of elaborate (almost recognizable) locales, talking animals, and fantastical contraptions with real world situations and effective live action performances.

One of the movie's best performances is thanks in part to the formidable voicework of Ian McKellen, but even more to the artist-technicians working under visual effects supervisor Michael Fink. The character in question is a panserbjørne, or armored polar bear, named Iorek Byrnison. As a disgraced noble warrior, redeemed by his championship of Lyra, Iorek is the character who experiences the greatest emotional arc in the movie, as well as the most action. And if you can remember that this creature is nothing more than bytes and pixels while you watch him on screen, you are doing better than I. I found the character of Iorek to be utterly believable; at times ferocious and frightening, and at other times tragic or tender.

So the artificial acting is strong in The Golden Compass. But what of the human performances? Those looking for star turns by some of the recognizable names in the cast will likely be disappointed. Daniel Craig is little more than a cameo. And the beauteous Eva Green, as witch clan queen Serafina Pekkala, has only a handful of lines. Although the acting is solid, from Sam Elliott as the cowpoke of the sky Lee Scoresby to Tom Courtenay as Farder Coram, an elder of the gyptians (water gypsies) that are staunch—if underdeveloped—allies of Lyra, most of the adult actors have precious little to do in the film.

Only Nicole Kidman, who does ice princess better than just about anyone, gets a significant amount of screen time. And makes very good use of it! Her Mrs. Coulter is extremely elegant, and equally evil. You have no trouble believing that she is the mastermind behind the General Oblation Board, or "Gobblers," the Magisterium sub-committee stealing poor children for a dastardly polar experiment called intercision.

But the key performance in the film doesn't come from a CGI or a human adult, it comes from a little girl. Her name is Dakota Blue Richards, and she makes her feature film acting debut in The Golden Compass. And a fierce, affecting debut it is, too.

I have heard some complaints about the performance—viewers (who were obviously not Pullman readers) who complained that the actor playing Lyra was just too bratty and unkempt. Proof, I'd say, that the portrayal is spot on. The character of Lyra was never designed to be a sweet, adorable little miss. Lyra, watched over and educated by servants and scholars at Jordan College, but raised by no one in particular, is self-made and semi-feral. Only someone as fearless and rebellious as this girl could bring down the evil of authority—a concept she respects not in the least.

Lyra is destined to be the undoing of civilization and the salvation of humanity. It is a daunting fate, and I admire the fact that Chris Weitz didn't try to cutesy-fy this young warrior maiden or mitigate the harshness of her epic journey.

However, there is an equally harsh reality in Hollywood. And that is that if an expensive movie doesn't rake in the dough, there will be no sequels—no matter whether the story is designed as a cycle of three or not. And The Golden Compass didn't even come close to making back its sizable budget in U.S. theaters.

I can't say that I was surprised by that sad fact, either.

Although I am sure that the Christian fundamentalist critics would like to take credit for the film never finding a large U.S. audience, I seriously doubt that such credit is due them. Yes, the negative press was probably a factor, but less of an issue than the fact that the movie failed to meet a few parental criteria for exemplary kiddie entertainment, no matter what the religious persuasion, or lack thereof. First of all, the story is neither simple nor straightforward. And it is filled with unfamiliar beings, practices, and arcane terminology. Weitz tried to keep as many of the ideas, images, and metaphysical concepts of Philip Pullman's original story in the film as possible. As a result, a viewer—especially a young one—unfamiliar with the books, will likely fall behind quickly and never catch the thread of the narrative again.

And then there is the overall tone of the film. Outside of the opening scene of childish mock warfare, there is no sense of merriment or fun in this movie. Wonder, yes. Merriment, no. And the audience must savor those opening moments of golden Oxford sunshine, for they will see little more brightness in the rest of the film. Scene after scene is full of darkness, foreboding, and implied or actual violence. Want to see a light-filled interior? I hope you don't mind that it turns out to be in a concentration camp cafeteria for kidnapped children who are scheduled for a particularly hideous form of torture.

Most American parents and children want bright and cheerful stories. A little bit of scary is okay, but not too much. A sad touch is acceptable, as long as the overall message is upbeat. And they want easy heroics, uncomplicated villainy, and plenty of sunshine. An unequivocally happy ending is also, of course, de rigueur.

Animated stories like the 2006 holiday hit Happy Feet are the best bet. But slightly more serious adventure fantasies, like 2005's Christmas smash, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, can also easily charm an audience.

Narnia, of course, had no trouble winning the Christian box-office, since the lion Aslan was (even in the movie) a rather obvious Christ figure who willingly died for the sins of humanity, but arose again from the dead. Still, the appeal of the movie had less to do with theology than it did with the sweetness of young Lucy, the cuteness of the creatures like the fauns, and the regal pageantry that played out on Narnia's green and golden pastures. The wholesome Pevensie siblings end up triumphing over evil and still get "home" safe and sound—but not before being crowned royalty and meeting Santa Claus! Now that's a rip-roaring tale for the entire family.

The Golden Compass, book and movie, makes no such attempt to leave their audiences walking on sunshine in the final chapter or scene. Philip Pullman actually closes his book with the sacrificial slaughter of a child as a means of opening up a portal to another world for a mad scientist (who just happens to be the father of young Lyra). Harrowing and very un-Hollywood stuff, that! Chris Weitz softens Pullman's ending by closing his film at a slightly earlier point in the plot. He leaves his audience neither traumatized nor triumphant—just faintly apprehensive and primed for the continuation of the saga in upcoming sequels; sequels that may never come precisely because the movie refuses to package itself as predictably jolly family fare.

The fate of the cinematic continuation of the His Dark Materials trilogy is yet to be determined. I am hoping that the trilogy completes itself. And if Mr. Weitz chooses not to run this particularly nasty gauntlet of public and critical opinion again, I hope that the next helmer manages to be as trustworthy a guardian of the original story.

Taking the word "church" out of The Golden Compass compromised very little. I had no trouble detecting the religious overtones in the fascist state being depicted. (Heck, one of the murderous state goons was even named Fra Pavel!) And if there was ever a time to contemplate the negative ramifications of the theocratic state, now would be that time.

I will be sorry if The Subtle Knife, the second novel in the series, is never made into a movie. And I will be equally sorry if The Golden Compass never finds the wide audience—on DVD and cable and download—that it deserves. This is admittedly not a fun frolic of a warm and fuzzy fairy tale. (Those who require their movies to be thus flocked to America's cineplexes and made a smash hit out of Enchanted this past holiday season.)

Enchanting in its own way, The Golden Compass is a cold, dark fable. Adults plot evil in support of their own power lust. Children and the underclass suffer. People die and their dæmons evaporate in a burst of golden dust. It's tough stuff for the little tykes to watch, perhaps—but I think they can take it. They live in this world with the rest of us, after all.

For this film also features one of the most valiant child heroines I have seen in many a day. And although she doesn't experience a sunny and tidy happy ending, she does survive, even prevail, to fight authority another day.

That's the kind of fable even a world-weary adult can find inspirational.

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