A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 369 – The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass – March 4th, 2011

It has been a couple of years since I read the book that this movie is based on and I entertained some thoughts of re-reading it before we put this in for the project. The thing is, I’ve got a lot of books on my to-read list. It’s part of my job. And they just keep coming. Re-reading something is a luxury and this book is a dense one so I never really got around to it. Still, I remember it fairly well. I certainly remember it well enough to watch this movie and feel a definite sense that something is amiss.

I feel bad about saying that, because there’s a lot of care and effort that went into this movie. It’s not a shoddily done film and there are bits that were done quite well. But it’s lacking something and it throws everything in the movie off. I think the trouble is that the book is a fairly intricate work, with a lot of threads of plot woven together and the reveals are done bit by bit, so you learn everything along with Lyra. And the movie can’t do that. It doesn’t have the time or the medium, so it has to simplify. Unfortunately it seems to have tried to simplify while also keeping all of the major plot points. That’s a problem.

The world the movie is set in is an incredibly detailed universe that’s an alternate reality to our own. And that’s set out at the beginning. That’s part of the whole plot. Some of the characters know that it’s just one of many alternate universes in existence. It’s a sort of steampunky neo-Victorian vibe and also has some magical stuff. Such as huge talking polar bears, and witches (who are never really explained but who play a key role in the final battle, but I’ll get to that). Also, and this is key, every person has an external representation of their soul. They’re called daemons and they take animal forms. Children’s daemons change shape, but they settle on one permanent form as a child grows up and their personality becomes more set. Daemons talk to their people and stay with them at all times. It’s taboo to handle another person’s daemon with bare hands and hurting someone’s daemon hurts the person too. This is all very important and it’s one of the things the movie does well. There’s some exposition, but there’s a lot more showing than telling and a lot of nice details with daemons all over the place in various forms. The only quibble I have, really is that once or twice the daemons are very obviously CGI in moments that don’t require it. Like a couple of guards with mastiffs that just stand there. Really? You couldn’t find a couple of dogs to stand there? I guess.

So we’ve got the daemons, and they’re important, but then we’ve got the dust, which is sort of like the physical representation of sin as it’s described to Lyra. But that only comes in later on and is rather clumsily handled up until then. And it’s important! Because it’s the motivation for several key plotlines! And then there’s the gobblers, who are kidnapping kids, but they don’t get a whole lot of time or explanation beyond the most cursory of lines. There are strange and mysterious things going on in the north, but we only know that because the characters all but flat out state “There are strange and mysterious things going on in the north!” Lyra’s guardian, Lord Asriel, shows up at Jordan College in Oxford, where Lyra lives, and he’s an explorer who does mysterious things. In the north. Then he takes off again after some strange and mysterious conversations. Lyra meets the strange and mysterious Mrs. Coulter, who takes her away from Jordan College with the temptation of a trip to the north. It feels like everything that happens in Oxford is all just set up to push Lyra to the north with tons of quick explanations and even quicker character development.

The thing is, once we’re in the north we get bogged down with the bears and what feels like a whole lot of empty space. I know things happened, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how it all went together to get from one point to the next. Time passed, people were introduced and then set aside, one of the witches showed up and then we didn’t really find out anything about her or what makes her important. And then? Bears. Lots of stuff with the bears. The bears fight and growl and oh it’s all very impressive, but in the larger scheme of things in this movie? It’s just plain not important. It’s not like the entire bear army shows up to help Lyra in the end. Just Iorek, whom she already knew.

Once we know what’s actually going on in the north – Mrs. Coulter and her cronies have some scheme to separate children from their daemons – there’s a big battle and well. That’s it. And I know damn well that the book went into more detail here. Leaving aside that it ends in a weird spot that isn’t where the book ends, it just feels like so much of what’s important to the book is glossed over in the movie. Oh, the separation plot point is horrifyingly done and I was genuinely uncomfortable watching it, but the purpose behind it? The grander scheme of things? It’s just not there. Same with the witches. Same with the bears. Same with everything. Because it’s all tossed in there and it’s all given a tiny bit of time. But at the expense of everything else. Everything takes away from everything. The book is a dense brick-like tome and the movie doesn’t even run two hours. So while I enjoyed a lot of the performances, and the cast is full of recognizable names, and the costumes and set dressing and cinematography and visual worldbuilding were lovely, and the daemons were well handled, the movie just doesn’t work for me. Sad, but there it is. I truly wish it had been otherwise.

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March 4, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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