In short, the movie is excellent. It is a flawed picture, with the most unfortunate knife job of any film in motion picture history, but all things considered it is an excellent picture nonetheless. This parallel Earth is a fount of discovery and globetrekking and storytelling despite having no ending and more surgical cuts to its artistic freedom than the Lakota commercial guy.
His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass
In short, the movie is excellent. It is a flawed picture, with the most unfortunate knife job of any film in motion picture history, but all things considered it is an excellent picture nonetheless. This parallel Earth is a fount of discovery and globetrekking and storytelling despite having no ending and more surgical cuts to its artistic freedom than the Lakota commercial guy. It's definitely not The Lord of the Rings on any level of ambition and it shouldn't have to be; it's a simpler pleasure. The Philip Pullman readership should be proud to have fanship over the most colorful and intelligent and infernal fantasy series the world has seen -- with a science fiction gloss, post-modern morality, theological jigsaws, and even quantum mechanics. This film will surely get new audiences to the bookstore and provides good value to old fans too.
The Meat of the Movie
Any misgivings I have with The Golden Compass adaptation stem from cuts made by its studio, and when I say "cuts" I mean the kind that makes art bleed internally. This was a knife job for the ages. Newcomer director Chris Weitz -- presumably with a gun to his back -- reluctantly trimmed a nearly 3-hour epic down to 2 hours. That missing hour(?) included among other things the novel's original ending: an essential final act that brings all of the book's themes in perspective, shows us acts of creation and pitiless destruction, and is easily the most morally pandemonius climax to a novel that I ever want to know. All that is missing and more. To put it simply, these scenes were snipped with scissors, served in alfredo sauce, and eaten. So given the awful circumstances in which this movie was created, it really is quite amazing what Chris Weitz managed to salvage. The Golden Compass succeeds surprisingly well for a motion picture that has suffered more physical insults to its body than Jake La Motta. It could be better, but by that same argument it also could be a lot worse. It lacked a lot, but there was no lack of Chris Weitz's respect for the books. It's better to have a nice film that feels half-finished than a finished film that makes no sense.
Pacing is the first casualty in these running-time cuts; you will laugh at how fast it throws the story in your face, guaranteed. Weitz is forced to breeze by some of the author's more interesting ideas in his rush to clock in at 2 hours, but he does it in such a way as to make you interested in reading up more about it later, to pick up a book and fork over some money. You say, "That's an odd idea. How bizarre. I wonder what it could mean! How exciting." Pullman's mystical concepts stud this universe with mysteries that invite exploration. Yes, a lot of nifty ideas are glossed over in a sweat but Weitz keeps your curiosity on the plate, and that's the biggest fish to fry. Keep it in perspective, you with the kaleidescope eyes.
Given that nearly an hour of the film was cut, a lot of subtext from the novel is missing -- but that happens to all adaptations. The important point is that Weitz is a great fan of the books and he kept in more than enough of the story to make a good movie. His love of the books is his greatest asset and those elements that do make it into the film are deftly explained in no time at all. It is frequently argued that between the two of them Peter Jackson is the superior filmmaker, and in many ways they're right: he is. But Weitz's film has a more generous heart owing to the colorful universe that author Philip Pullman paints; he uses daemons to highlight character relationships and gives flesh to his heroine Lyra. A nobody perhaps, but Weitz has sense enough to eschew Jackson's melodrama and just put a heart at the center of his film, simply. It's been argued that the battles in this movie are bereft of danger. Does that matter? I didn't pay ten dollars to watch that fight anyways, I wanted to see the beginnings of an infinitely inventive, shapeshifting, physics-spanning adventure with an atheist bent. In many ways Philip Pullman himself eschews battlefields (our AntiTolkien), prefering to consolidate psychological and intellectual wars. Fans ought to be glad for the faithfulness of Weitz's script to the books. Author Philip Pullman is purring in his comforter as we speak, and for good reason because his brainchild is in good hands.
Anything else I have to say has already been stated by a hundred-and-one other better reviewers than I: marvelous all-around acting, unprecedented visual effects, and so on. I won't repeat any of these points but just to bring home the point, know that actress Dakota Blue Richards is Lyra. It feels as if Weitz cut a hole in the fabric of space-time, found Lyra, pulled her into our world through a window in the other universe, dressed her up in trousers and a T-shirt and passed her off as Dakota Blue Richards. Her lack of any acting experience she more than makes up for with -- as she puts it -- her desire to just "be" Lyra. This is a girl happy to be Lyra, happy to play make-believe with her Pantalaimon and to befriend armored bears, and so refreshing in her grasp of the character's tics. She carries the endearing feminism-lite of His Dark Materials to a small measure of apotheosis, with no pomp nor ambition. This child -- almost effortlessly -- makes smoked meat sandwich out of the entire cast of Harry Potter, makes jellied meat out of Mortensen and Bloom, cooks Elijah Wood over a spitting fire.
In His Dark Materials, Pullman penned some of the most passionate and fleshed characters that I have ever known, and they are supported here by the strongest cast of actors in a fantasy series since Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring. And though they are not all given proper screen time, the supporting actors do such a remarkable job in the short time that they are afforded on screen -- which, for some, amounts to a shorter cameo than Alfred Hitchcock. Even the smallest voices have a delightful screen presence... and personality. You'll leave your seat wishing you'd seen more of these short-lived characters, and that's not really a bad feeling to have; it encourages me to see it all over again.
Director Chris Weitz is at times clumsy, being a newcomer and all, but he deserves more credit than this; this is a cast and crew that has had to survive enough studio interference to roast a ham radio on a spit, and I don't believe for a second that Weitz et al had any creative control left by the time test audiences were probed. And judging by the studio's reaction, these test audiences must have been pulled from the furthest corners of intellectual paucity. Case in point: they convinced the studio to trim the ending because they mistook "parallel worlds" with "the Christian afterlife" and assumed that characters seen journeying to other parallel Earths in different universes were in fact dead and were going to Heaven -- and this despite numerous elucidations by every single character with a speaking line as to the nature of parallel universes. Maybe these people were adjusting the lid of their soda when character no.15 was explaining the concept of parallel Earths... again. Maybe they all had their souls removed prior to the test screening, hence their attention span of absolute zero. Or maybe these test screenings took place in a remote mountain village in Nepal, where no one speaks English. Viewers who are still confused by Pullman's universe despite the plot simplifications need to be medicated for attention deficits.
References to the church are remarkably untouched. Derek Jacobi describes the Magesterium's motives towards Lord Asriel and it screams out "Galileo!" with all the subtlety of a loudspeaker. Several other scenes touch upon an important theme from the books about what is inherently wrong with centralized "political" religion -- that is, its members preach the truth but secretly fear it, and the inclusion of that theme makes the superficial disappearance of the word "church" from the script look trivial. Most importantly, Nicole Kidman hints at Genesis: the implications for the Magesterium's intercision are clear. We put faith in Chris Weitz and he made good on his promise, make no mistake. Regarding the ending: by moving the final three chapters of Book I to the beginning of the second movie (The Subtle Knife), Weitz hopes to have more autonomy to keep Lord Asriel's damning exposition scenes in the next film. I miss the original ending to The Golden Compass terribly, but there's the promise of seeing it in greater splendor in The Subtle Knife and that's something worth waiting a long time for. But non-atheists shouldn't balk at Philip Pullman's themes, because he attacks the misuse of science as strongly as he attacks the misuse of religion, and I say that with all honesty (read his books again and look for the subtext). In his novels it is the combined perversion of church and science (or one can argue human hubris in general) that is pillaging the universe. So cheer up.
A flawed movie? Absolutely, but one that deserves our respect for the strengths that it does have. And these are important strengths, strengths that are lacking in so-called "better" mainstream pictures. I forgive any and all problems with this film translation simply because it is so strong on other points. In allegory, this production has been cut up with scissorhands, had a poisoned martini, was tossed from a moving train, locked in a trunk and thrown into the sea -- the film not only survived these abuses, it's remarkably alive. There's discovery, metaphysical wonder, earnest characterizations, and enough plot to stun a golden monkey in this more-faithful-than-most adaptation. Keep an open mind, there's a lot to love in this movie, and less to hate about it than you'd think...