The film adaptations of beloved books ending up as failed projects aren’t an entirely new concept, especially not in the fantasy genre. It doesn’t matter how much money the studio throws out into ecstatic visual effects or jaw-dropping set and world design. One of such films is The Golden Compass, which was being based on the works of Philip Pullman; in particular the His Dark Materials series of books.
Now, with the incredible success of Harry Potter, most studios wanted to milk the young adult fantasy genre and create their own renditions of films. However, with a messy search for a director and the almost broken state in which the script was written; the film was literally set up for failure.
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The Movie Review
In a world that is governed by the Magisterium (The Church), human souls naturally exist outside of their bodies in the form of sentient animals known as Daemons. A young girl named Lyra Belacqua and her Daemon named Pan, live within Oxford as an Orphan. Her eccentric, mysterious, and rebellious uncle Lord Asriel is a teacher at Oxford, who also spends a lot of his time adventuring.
After the mysterious disappearance of her best friend Roger, Lyra leaves with Mrs Coulter to her residence in London. However, upon reaching London, Lyra realizes that Mrs Coulter is not the woman that than she had ever thought, yet is a cruel and controlling person that she must escape the clutches off. Eventually, Lyra finds herself caught in a huge battle between the Magisterium and the rebel forces alike; all the while trying to save the children who are kidnapped.
The film’s world is gorgeous, and writer/director Chris Weitz puts it at the very center of it all. It shows the world of British high society in this alternate earth, along with the slums and dark underbellies of this universe. To be honest, the film is by far one of the most gorgeous young adult adaptations that I’ve seen on screen. From the magnanimous set designs to beautiful outfit and wardrobe work and by far some of the most expensive CGI done by New Line; it exudes an aura of fantasy that can’t be found anywhere else.
However, Chris Weitz’s writing talents are definitely not up to spark to handle such a huge franchise. In particular, the film just lacks any semblance of stakes and tension. The book was fully covered by intensity, from its atmosphere to its dialogue and just the exact way these characters behaved. However, in the film adaptation; there’s nothing of the sort.
The film entirely relies on its beautiful visuals and the performances by its ensemble cast to do the heavy lifting. While that would be enough in a mindless action-adventure film like the Fast and Furious franchise; it’s definitely not even close here.
The performances on the other hand are unsurprisingly amazing. When you have actors such as Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Sir Ian McKellen, Sam Elliot, Eva Green, and Christopher Lee on board, you can’t expect anything but the best anyways.
Every single performance in the film is amazing, from Ian McKellen’s fully CGI bear of Iorek to Nicole Kidman’s somewhat psychopathic interpretation of Mrs Coulter, each individual performance has sparks of greatness littered throughout the film.
The Bottom Line
In conclusion, The Golden Compass was a film where audiences went in with high expectations and came out quite baffled at the disappointment they felt. This film should have definitely been the starting point in a masterful franchise that was set in a gorgeous but dark world, yet it manages to remain a sluggish outing muddled by poor writing and direction that breaks the audience’s interest in the film after every single scene.
The world is gorgeously designed, and the Daemons are super well animated, yet the lack of powerful writing and the terrible direction featured here leaves much to desire. The potential to be a great film was completely thrown out of the window when a director who wasn’t passionate about the source material was hired.