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Two Hours of Babble 

Sometimes a movie critic goes to a film with apprehension. You know enough about a picture to worry that it's not your cup of tea. Sometimes the film surprises you, captures your interest in a way you didn't expect, even blindsides you with delight. My outing to see Chris Weitz's The Golden Compass was not one of those times. I went to the picture full of concerns, and all of my fears were realized. Adapted from Philip Pullman's novel, Northern Lights, The Golden Compass is the story of a brave 12-year-old orphan girl who suffers from an astonishing shortage of common sense. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is oblivious to danger and slow to learn a lesson. If she burns her right hand on a hot stove, she doesn't hesitate to touch the stove with her left foot. Metaphorically speaking. She is captured by evildoers exactly 773 times in this movie, and at the end is speeding on her way for even more captures in the first of what I'm sure producers hope will be hundreds of sequels. (Be still my heart.) People keep warning Lyra not to take needless risks, but, she apparently reasons, how else can she so reliably get captured?

Lyra lives in an alternate universe which is a lot like ours " if you've taken a tubful of bad acid. In Lyra's world, everyone's soul is an animal that lives outside their body and goes around with them like a talking pet. Adults have fixed animal souls, but children's souls are shape shifters. Lyra's soul can be a bird, though usually a ferret, occasionally a mouse and sometimes a bobcat. These animal souls obviously represent character traits. In Lyra's case, they are respectively free-spiritedness, curiosity, fear and ferocity. One of the villains has a snake. Lyra's uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has a leopard. James Bondish and Indiana Jonesish as he is, Lord Asriel would no doubt be the picture's hero if he'd hung around long enough, but he departs early for the sequel. (Maybe, like me, he's hoping there isn't one.)

The plot in The Golden Compass involves Lyra's role in thwarting the ruling hierarchy, the Magisterium, from wiping out free will. This dastardly scheme involves snatching all the world's children off to an igloo up North-Pole-way and surgically removing their soul pets. Afterwards, the children walk around with wide, unfocused eyes and talk like automatons. Meanwhile, Uncle Asriel has discovered some dust up north that suggests a way to transport from one parallel universe to another, though no advantage for doing so is ever detailed. Somehow this connects to what Lyra is up to, but it would make blood drip from my ears if I were to try to explain how.

Weitz has arranged for some classy actors to assume various guises in this brain-numbing story. Derek Jacobi plays a Magisterial Big Cheese who just oozes with self-righteous nastiness. Think of him as whatever religious fundamentalist you're proud to despise. Ian McKellen provides the voice for Iorek Byrnison, a good warrior polar bear who assists Lyra by defeating the head bad polar bear in an ursus-a-ursus combat that would set a caffeine junkie to yawning. Nicole Kidman plays Marisa Coulter, a really, really bad person (an alternate universe version of Ann Coulter) in league with the Magisterium for reasons this film never bothers to reveal. My favorite of the biggish stars in the flick, however, is Sam Elliott who shows up as Lee Scoresby, a sardonic cowboy who must surely have driven his Beach Ballimp in from the alternative universe of a different movie. Elliott is always fun to watch, but I haven't a clue what his character is doing here.

For those astonished by my snarling response to this movie, I will readily concede that fantasy hasn't ever floated the boat of my imagination. I gave up on the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings flicks after one each, and neither of those approached the insufferability of this film. I will commend young Dakota Richards as a performer of promising charisma. And, of course, given my bedrock belief that organized religion is the worst thing humankind ever invented, I applaud the picture's notion that institutions like the Magisterium will readily harm those they purport to serve. But neither Richards' performance nor certain worthy themes make this picture even faintly watchable. Leaving the theater after seeing it, a viewer behind me complained loudly it was the worst movie he'd ever seen. I can't go that far. But it is unquestionably the worst film I've seen this year.

click to enlarge The Golden Compass is a spirited mess in spite of the charismatic efforts of Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. - 2007 NEW LINE CINEMA
  • 2007 New Line Cinema
  • The Golden Compass is a spirited mess in spite of the charismatic efforts of Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra.
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