Going South: 'His Dark Materials' Sink

Maui Time | December 3, 2007
The hullabaloo surrounding any "anti-religious" theme to Philip Pullman's 1995 His Dark Materials trilogy (the title is taken from Milton's Paradise Lost) takes a distant backseat to screenwriter/director Chris Weitz's spotty filmic adaptation that never locates a throughline to the convoluted narrative. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards plays Lyra Belacqua, a 12-year-old orphan raised at Oxford college under the supervision of her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), a scientist and explorer intent on traveling to the Arctic Circle to examine golden dust that connects mystical worlds. Coincidentally, a Nazi-like group called the Magisterium (a reference to the Roman Catholic teaching authority) has been kidnapping children and spiriting them off to a compound in the Arctic to separate the youth from their daemons (souls) which manifest as alter ego pets that can change species, at least until the child’s personality becomes fixed. Lyra is inexplicably and secretly given the last Golden Compass (also called an Alethiometer), a device that ascertains the underlying truth to any question asked of it. With no idea of how to use the compass Lyra is an easy mark for one slinky and cunning Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to abscond with the rebellious girl and her furry daemon (voiced by Freddie Highmore) in order to steal the compass for the Magisterium's use. Unmotivated chase scenes and erratically violent fight sequences punctuate the story's timewarp setting that seems to fall somewhere between World War I and II.

When Lyra escapes Mrs. Coulter's diabolical clutches, she is befriended by a group of gypsies called "gyptians." Whether Romanian or Egyptian refugees, the name causes confusion and consternation whenever it's used. Serafina (Eva Green) is a friendly "witch," although she seems like more of a fairy that periodically visits Lyra to help her on her journey. Sam Elliott pulls his trademark cowboy duty as Lee Scorseby, a balloon aviator who points Lyra toward a polar bear named Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) ostensibly to protect her. However, Iorek serves mainly to grind a personal axe against the North's polar bear king Ragnar (Ian McShane) in a brutal fight sequence that ends in a particularly violent and shocking fashion.

The CGI daemons (cartoon monkey, rat, rabbit and cat) are strictly second-rate in a movie inevitably about war at a time when most audiences are battle-fatigued from the world's tumultuous state of affairs. None of the characters attract anywhere near the level of empathy that accompanied those of The Chronicles of Narnia, much less the Lord of the Rings trilogy. However entertaining the literary source material for The Golden Compass might be, we never get a sense of how the quirky clockwork device is used to secure and protect the ideal of "free will" that Pullman posits as the highest value for his protagonists. One perceived effect of the war in Iraq could be that there are no decent movies to take the little ones to this holiday season, except for the dumbed-down approach of Alvin and the Chipmunks. The Golden Compass is designed to open the way for sequels to follow, but judging from the poor quality of the first bloated installment it hardly seems an endeavor worth pursuing.

Rated PG-13, 114 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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