The His Dark Materials series only came onto my radar when I saw the trailer for the movie last year. Josh suggested we check the film out on Sunday, and we headed to the cheapies in Bridgeville. (Sidenote for Pittsburghers: Screenworks 14 is well worth a short drive. $2 tickets!)
The Golden Compass is set in a world parallel to our own. One extraordinary difference is that each person’s soul resides outside their body, in the form of an animal totem called a daemon. When uncle Asriel leaves Lyra at Jordan College so he can travel North to investigate a mysterious substance called Dust, we follow this mischievous young girl as she is plucked from her charge by the suave Ms. Coulter. Lyra is gifted with a surprise birthright before she leaves with the woman: an alethiometer, the last compass of its kind that will lead to truth. All the others have been destroyed by the Magisterium, who Ms. Coulter happens to work for (uh oh!). Lyra discovers that Ms. Coulter is in charge of a project that is kidnapping children and when she tries to steal the alethiometer from Lyra, the girl runs away and her adventure North in search of her uncle and the missing kids — begins.
The tale that unfolds is unlike any other story I’ve experienced, especially on the big screen. There was lots of drama, action, emotion. Storywise, however, I couldn’t help thinking there were things missing. I know that it is inevitable to lose detail that you would get from reading the book, but I was left not caring for things I suspect I should have been more concerned about. For instance, the Dust that the Magisterium wants kept a secret? So much so that they would kill for it? I couldn’t really care. I know it’s supposed to be a mystery, but it would have taken a little more information to actually pique my interest. It is possible to keep certain details hidden from the audience and allow the viewers to still leave feeling satisfied.
With a couple exceptions, I thought the acting was excellent — Dakota Blue Richards does an exceptional job, especially considering the weight of such a strong leading role. The cast seemed to interact well with each other and, most surprisingly, the CGI. There were only a couple times when my mind did a little double-take and said “Aha, that monkey is totally not hugging Ms. Coulter!“.
Visually, it is stunning. The environments are beautiful and believable, the machinery was conceptually inventive, the costume design is great, and character design for the CG characters was good. My favorite CG character should probably be Pan, Lyra’s trusted daemon, since he’s all cute and squeaky and shape-shifting, etc… but my warm and fuzzy feelings are all over Iorek*, exiled prince of the armored bears. Wicked.
I have a couple beefs with The Golden Compass, but all in all it was an enjoyable flick. I would certainly recommend it if you are a fan of the genre, although it might be a little too deep-end fantasy for more casual fans. I personally look forward to the next installment. I’m also getting the soundtrack.
*This affection has nothing to do with the fact that The Sum of David has a butt-kicking polar bear, and that seeing Iorek deal out some awesome Bear Rambo justice on the big screen was all kinds of righteous. None at all.**
**Okay, maybe a little.