Back in July I watched the stagnant interlude that was Harry Potter number who-cares, and said as far as children’s book adaptations go, I was much more interested in “a little girl called Lyra and her big fuck-off armoured bear”. Well here comes said girl and bear, in the adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, a trio of deliciously dark novels with an abundance of imagination and a fantastic way of sticking a middle finger up to all ruling religions.
Naturally I was quite excited to see Pullman’s work on the big screen, but as the release date approached and stories emerged of a “toned down” content and “made for kids” vibe I started to get wary. Though dubbed a child’s book, The Amber Spyglass (changed to “The Golden Compass” for film as thickos wouldn’t know what a spyglass was) deals with complex ideas, violence and some nasty occurrences - a staple of any good story in my eyes. Unfortunately, some idiot made the decision to aim this film squarely at the tots, following in Narnia’s footsteps and ignoring the vastly superb example set by Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.
So we’re left with “theology on Sesame Street”, with every subtle symbol explained VERY SIMPLY, with ickle words and puppets (ok, not the last part). I half expected them to announce “this scene is brought to you by the letter ‘D’, the number six, and a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic church." Granted, the film doesn’t have the luxury of a few hundred pages to gradually introduce themes and encourage interpretation, but it doesn’t half feel lazy to explain every little thing via voiceover, diagram or handy character monologue. The kids wouldn’t get what it was about if it didn’t explain everything. But, let’s be honest. Who cares? I’m an adult, make this film for me, and if the kids don’t get it - fuck ‘em. They won’t remember tomorrow anyway, with their little under-developed brains.
I’m veering toward a Simpsons-style review again, so let’s get back to the film. Dumbed-down aside, the majority of this film is pretty good. The effects are superb, especially on the demons (they are the SOULS of PEOPLE as this is an ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE) and big ol’ Iroek, the armoured bear, is pretty ace. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards does a stirling job as Lyra, capturing her defiance and confidence without being a brat. Nicole Kidman is fantastic as creepy lady Mrs Coulter, playing the role almost pantomime style, but stealing the scenes she’s in, even when her creepy little monkey is on her shoulder. And Daniel Craig is as brief as his character in the book, but a welcome addition to any screen as far as I’m concerned.
But the film’s biggest flaw is in trying to achieve a coherent story from a complicated book in less than two hours. Jackson made films that last for bloody days, but he gets the story in, paces it, and we can all handle it fine. Director and screenwriter Chris Weitz slices out any real character interaction, leaving a trail of events that probably don’t make any sense to a non-reader. Up to the end I was enjoying the film in an average sort of way, but then they did something utterly ridiculous. Those who’ve already read the book will know the ending is dark, pretty shocking, and sets things up for the second book nicely. That ending doesn’t happen in this film. Skip a few pages back and stop right there. Just before the real darkness begins. Just as things are all happy-happy. Just as not very much has been concluded yet. It’s a pathetic ending to the film, a wimpish “ooo don’t upset the kiddies” cop-op, and I was nearly as outraged as I was at the end of Pirates Two - and that’s saying something.
Golden Compass would’ve got a CF1 for doing a reasonably good job of bringing a brilliant book on screen. But by pandering to children and ignoring the book’s stronger points, it drops down a point, just clinging to a CF0. Read the book. Watch the film. Be disappointed. I hope you’re happy, children. I hope you’re bloody happy.