A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Golden Compass

March 4, 2011

The Golden Compass

Back when I first watched this movie I remember being disappointed and underwhelmed. At the time I had just finished reading the book this movie was based on and it saddened me that the movie seemed to so badly miss the point of the book. I’d like to cheat a little tonight and insert my original review from my LJ here as part of my review:

Just got done watching the movie version of The Golden Compass. Overall a fairly flat movie I felt. The moviemakers had to cram a LOT of info into a medium not best suited to it, so all the mystery and discovery of the book has been replaced by a voice-over and massive amounts of exposition dialog in the first third of the movie. So, for example, instead of Lyra figuring out over the course of her adventures what the Dust is and how it fits into the framework of her world she’s conveniently told about it right at the start of the film. I was impressed with the job they did layering in the most difficult concept from the book – the notion of daemons which are peoples’ souls in exterior form. Sure it was mentioned in the opening monologue, but they also managed to make it work visually, constantly reminding the viewer that every person in the world has a familiar animal with them at all times. My biggest complaint would be the action sequences. It felt as if the director saw the action bits as something that interfered with the plot: something best dispensed with as quickly as possible so as to get back to the storytelling. None of them take the time to get the viewer involved in any way – there is no ebb or flow to them, and they stagger ploddingly through some CGI before thankfully ending. (In particular the battle between the bears – which is fantastically rendered in the book and is sweeping, epic and full of dramatic tension – was dreadful. I don’t blame the teams of artists that created it – it was beautifully rendered – but the awful pacing and directing. Ugh.)

So yeah, those were my biggest complaints… until the closing credits started. I blame Peter Jackson and Fran Boyle for the atrocious song at the end. They did it – with pretty good success – at the ends of the LOTR movies, and now New Line is trying to rip them off. Crappily. Really, really crappily. ‘Let a seven-year-old write a poetic ode to Lyra and put it to lilting repetitive music.’ seems to have been the direction the producers gave. I’ve heard it and now I can’t un-hear it.

Of course the REAL biggest problem with the movie as an adaptation of the book is that it lacks the strength of its convictions. The book is an extremely dark story that ends with a brutal and gut wrenching twist. The movie tries to end on a high note by ending right before the climax of the book. As a result the movie is considerably weaker.

It puzzles me, actually, that anybody chose to attempt to adapt this property for the big screen in the first place. The books are bleak, dark, and upsetting. The heroes do not always win and indeed the heroes are not even always the heroes. What did the producers think they were going to do with the sequel? I mean clearly they intended to make one. This movie ends with a rousing speech by Lyra about how she and her allies are going to make everything right and somewhat of a deliberate cliffhanger. There’s no way that anybody could watch this film, even without having read the book, and feel that anything is concluded. There are entire skeins of loose plot threads. So were they intending to start the second movie with betrayal and tragedy? I suppose it would have set the tone for the movie, but it would have been unwatchable.

There are some things that this movie does well, however. The world in the books is a richly imagined and detailed one, and the movie does a great job of capturing some of that vision. The production design, costumes, and special effects are top notch. The casting is, in some cases, inspired. I particularly love Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby, the areonaut. I always love Sam’s drawl and his grin, and in this case he fit my imagined vision of the character perfectly.

I’m just so frustrated by this movie! It shows such promise, and it has such high production values, but it’s so ham-fisted in its adaptation. There are clear hints of plot threads from the book which don’t play out in the movie. Like when Mrs. Coulter reacts so slowly when her daemon has his paw shut in the window. A keen-eyed viewer might suss out one of the big reveals in the book there, but because that reveal isn’t explicitly stated in the movie it ends up looking like strange editing with the monkey being hurt and then her flinching in pain a couple beats later. I end up wondering how much of what’s wrong with the movie is director Chris Weitz’s fault and how much is the mucking about that New Line did after he had submitted his final cut. It has been hinted that what was eventually released did not match his vision of the film, and I’d be curious to see how Chris’ version worked.

I have to assume now, four years after the first movie came out, that the other His Dark Materials books will not be making it to film. So this one movie is all that we’re going to get of Lyra’s adventures between the worlds. I’m simultaneously disappointed and relieved. At least I’ll never have to listen to that awful closing credits song again.

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

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