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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007 05:28 pm

You've seen this before

The Golden Compass trots out fantasy flick clichés

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The Golden Compass Running time 1:54 Rated PG-13 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
Untitled Document Thanks to the runaway success of the Harry Potter films and The Lord of the Rings, it seems as though every movie studio is busily adapting books populated by witches, talking animals, and other weird folk. The latest fantasy title headed to theaters is The Golden Compass, the first in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Too bad this overwrought cliffhanger pales in comparison to the Potter and Rings films and comes off as just a half-baked retread of elements that even adolescents will recognize as clichés. Every item on the fantasy-film checklist is included here: talking critters; the quest for a powerful yet elusive object; a child prodigy; bloodthirsty, oppressive villains; a faraway land. The child in question is Lyra (spunky Dakota Blue Richards), a precocious preteen who lives in a different universe from our own. Her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has discovered that an elusive material known as Dust, from which the universe has been made, is flowing through a tear in the sky at the North Pole and seems to be coming from a world in an alternate universe. Moreover, he believes that he can travel from one world to the next through this portal and wishes to gain funding to journey north to test his theory. The powers that be at the Magisterium are none too pleased with this talk, because the existence of Dust and other worlds would run counter to their teachings and undercut their power. This won’t do, so they set out to sabotage Asriel’s trip at all costs. Meanwhile, Lyra garners the attention of Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a powerful figure who takes the young girl away from the school she’s attending on a mighty adventure, sensing that Lyra has great potential. Little does she know that the young girl has been given an Alethiometer, a device that can tell the owner the absolute truth about anything, and Lyra is the only one who can read it. In addition, two of Lyra’s young friends have been kidnapped by a rogue group known as the Gobblers, who take small children to a mysterious location where horrible experiments are performed on them. There’s a great deal of exposition here, and many more characters pop up for no other reason than to rescue Lyra when she’s in danger. A group known as the Gyptians fulfills that role on more than one occasion, as does the balloon-flying cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot), the comely witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), and talking polar bear Iorek Byrnison (voice by Ian McKellen). Not much information is given about these characters because they are too busy trying to keep Lyra out of harm’s way, rescue the kidnapped children, and keep our interest so that we’re eager for the second part of this story. To be sure, the film’s visuals are a knockout; the windswept Artic plains are quite beautiful, as is the pristine architecture there and in the cities of this odd world. Equally fun are the computer-generated demons that prance about. These are animal representations of each character’s soul and seeing snow leopards and various species of birds, cats, dogs, and other animals cavort onscreen next to their human counterparts is great fun. However, there’s something missing in The Golden Compass: a sense of originality. There really isn’t anything new here; Pullman has pulled together a variety of elements from a great many sources, and the whole production lacks vitality. As for the hubbub over whether the film promotes atheism or is an attack on the Catholic Church, those issues aren’t an issue here, though they may be more obvious in the books, which I have not read. Director Chris Weitz was far more concerned with getting a convincing polar bear fight onscreen than he was with sullying his hands with that mess.
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