The Golden Compass is an adaptation of Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, but it's obvious that the film has drawn just as much inspiration from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. Ever since Jackson's epic take on JRR Tolkien's tales proved to be an irresistible proposition for both filmgoers and Oscar voters, the major Hollywood studios have been searching for the next big fantasy franchise, and New Line Cinema – the company who gambled and won on the Rings trilogy – are pinning their hopes Pullman's acclaimed novels. Unfortunately, this workmanlike attempt is unlikely to capture the imagination in the same way Jackson's monumental trilogy did, and while I can't comment on the faithfulness of Chris Weitz's adaptation, I can comment on the picture's poorly confused and rushed storytelling, its lack of depth and, most disappointingly of all, the absence of any real sense of magic.
Maybe The Golden Compass' problems are a result of it being the awkward prologue to a story that will probably take shape in the coming chapters, and there certainly is a considerable amount of exposition and scene-setting to wade through in the early stages. A voiceover explains that this fictional world is not like ours, and the chief difference lies in the nature of the soul, which lives outside the body of its host and takes the form of an animal named a "daemon". Everyone has one of these creatures constantly perched on their shoulder or strolling beside them, and for children this animal will constantly change shape depending on their moods and emotions, until it finally settles into a representation of their personality during their teenage years. The story's central character Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), for example, possesses a creature named Pantalaimon, who can take the form of a ferret, a mouse, a cat or a bird, as the situation dictates, and his swift transformation from one creature to another is one of film's most effective visual effects.
In this aspect, and in many others, it's obvious that Philip Pullman has created a vividly detailed and textured world in his novels; and while Weitz and his production team have made a good stab at bringing this alternate universe to the screen, their handling of the dense plot may leave those who have no foreknowledge of the story feeling rather lost. In the frenetically paced first half we are introduced to Lyra, an orphan residing at an English college, whose uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig) has discovered a magical substance called Dust near the North Pole, which may provide a link to another world, or something. The Magisterium – the religious cabal in power over the country – is perturbed by this revelation, decrying it as heresy, and they even try to poison Asriel before he sets off to continue his expedition. Lyra is then invited to a grand dinner where she meets the sinister Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman, on good form as the icy villainess), and within five minutes of their introduction she has been invited to join Mrs Coulter on her own expedition to the North. Before departing, Lyra is given an alethiometer, the compass of the title, and this device, which allows its owner to see the true answers to any question, becomes a very sought-after object.
The Golden Compass is that rarest of big-budget movies: a film which could really do with being a little longer. Weitz's picture runs for less than two hours, and with so much explanation and incident being crammed into the screenplay, it never has time to take a breath, to let the audience get their bearings in this meticulously crafted fantasy world, and it never come close to attaining the sweeping, epic nature of Jackson's films. Instead, the characters find themselves being pushed from one plot point to the next, often in a clumsy and arbitrary fashion which prevents the story from ever finding a consistent flow. It also results in some irritating structural lapses; for example, Daniel Craig's Asriel abruptly disappears in the film's first half before his whereabouts is explained in the final fifteen minutes; and Eva Green comes out of nowhere to share one conversation with Lyra, before departing the scene and not showing up again until the last reel, when her and her fellow witches appear right on cue in the climactic battle.
Large parts of The Golden Compass don't make a great deal of sense, but with its impressive cast and production values it remains a watchable picture. Holding the film together is debut actress Dakota Blue Richards who makes Lyra a likable and feisty heroine and gives the picture a valuable human fulcrum amid the CGI wizardry. The supporting cast is full of the requisite collection of British veterans (Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay and Christopher Lee all show up), and Sam Elliott reprises his role as The Stranger from The Big Lebowski – but their performances are all generally acceptable rather than exceptional, a description which also goes for the film as a whole. During its long development period, director Chris Weitz left the project following doubts that he was capable of handling a film of this scale, and perhaps he should have trusted those instincts. Nothing in his directing past has pointed towards an affinity for this kind of filmmaking, and his timid, competent work here suggests a director who lacks the ambition and subversive streak required to turn this story into a real cinematic experience. The much talked-about anti-religious sentiment of the books is so nondescript here it barely merits a mention, and instead The Golden Compass just feels like just another average Hollywood fantasy film, almost indistinguishable in style and tone from 2005's disappointing Narnia adaptation.
There are two more books in Pullman's trilogy awaiting adaptation, but it's hard to muster up much enthusiasm for those forthcoming films after the cursory treatment this initial instalment has received. The novels have their dedicated fans, but whatever magic the books must possess seems to have been lost in translation, and we are left with a cluttered, haphazard piece of non-event filmmaking. Perhaps things will improve with the subsequent films; after all, this story does leave the viewer with a number of questions which those pictures will presumably answer. "I still want to know what Dust is" Lyra tells her friend in the final scene – you and me both, Lyra, but unless the filmmakers drastically raise their game with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, I don't think I'll be coming back to find out.