Reading Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, it’s hard not to think each book would make an amazing movie. Pullman doesn’t give his characters much complexity, but his elaborate action set-pieces put J.K. Rowling’s Quidditch bouts to shame. And he fills his world with things you desperately want to see: talking armored bears, flying ships and zeppelins, a steam-punkish version of London and Oxford that’s caught halfway between the Victorian era and now. Besides being a philosophical sort who’s not wild about Christianity — as everyone in America now knows — Pullman is a bit of a literary Terry Gilliam.
The Golden Compass probably would make a great movie — and you can see pieces of it in this adaptation from director Chris Weitz. But there’s just too much story in that 350-page book for a film that comes in at under two hours. Thirteen-year-old newcomer Dakota Blue Richards plays Lyra, an orphan who’s been raised at Jordan College, Oxford, by scholars. A charismatic daredevil, she’s trailed by a gang of ragamuffins and a CGI critter that’s constantly changing shape. Everyone in Lyra’s world has a “daemon” in animal form — not a pet or a familiar, as one might initially assume, but a second self, an external manifestation of the soul. When someone hurts your daemon, they hurt you, too.
Soon Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), heads off to the Arctic to investigate a mysterious substance called dust, leaving her an alethiometer, or “golden compass,” a sort of pocket oracle. But both the compass and the dust arouse the sinister interest of the Magisterium, a world-ruling organization that looks and acts like the Vatican back in the glory days of the Holy Roman Empire. (Since scary, authoritarian priests are stock heavies in Protestant culture, it’s hard to see why any of this should offend modern evangelicals — unless they decipher an obscure speech toward the end of the film, which hints that the magic dust represents the Fall from innocence and Pullman is all in favor of it.)
To control Lyra, the Magisterium sends out Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a glamorous, creepily maternal ice queen. But the woman’s malicious monkey daemon suggests she’s up to no good, and soon Lyra escapes her clutches with the help of the gyptians — think half gypsies, half pirates. Having learned that the Magisterium is kidnapping children and dragging them to the far north, Lyra heads up there to rescue her best friend, accompanied by a flying-ship pilot straight out of a Western (Sam Elliott) and one seriously pissy armored polar bear (memorably voiced by Ian “Gandalf” McKellen).
Confused yet? Though Weitz’s screenplay does some streamlining of the book’s densely layered subplots and backstories, he’d have done well to cut more. The movie is so jam-packed with action and visual effects and crusty British actors delivering exposition that there’s scant room to make the points that really matter. In the novel, when Lyra discovers what the Magisterium is doing with the abducted kids, the revelation makes us draw our breaths in horror. Though it’s an atrocity that only makes sense in Pullman’s world, it anchors his fantasy plot in real childhood fears. In the film, that discovery is rushed and, worse, watered down. It’s like a movie about the Inquisition that omits the bonfires, or leaves them to be guessed at by the already befuddled viewer.
As over-budgeted family fantasy fare goes, The Golden Compass has much to recommend it. It’s gorgeous to look at, and the computer-generated animals have actual personalities. It’s hard to imagine a better Lyra than Richards, a tough young actress who plays “fierce” better than “cute.” Kidman was born to be chilly Mrs. Coulter, and she gives the character a bizarrely sympathetic side. But, staring into all this sound and fury, it’s impossible not to regret the better film that might have been.