When I first came across The Golden Compass as a novel, several years ago, I was pretty fascinated by the concepts presented in it; every reviewer compared it to Tolkein as similar in scope. And to some degree, I think this is true; the alternate world in Phillip Pullman’s trilogy is grand and diverse, with a sweeping, rich tapestry of history.
If only the first cinematic installment of that trilogy had achieved that same sense of scale! I won’t say that the film was a bad adaptation of the story – it was fantastically true to the spirit of the book. I also won’t say that the effects or the cinematography were poorly executed; the animal Daemons are probably the pinnacle of CG, and the design of vehicles and buildings and other pieces of sets and production is truly fantastic in all senses of the word. I can’t even say that the performances in the film were subpar – every word uttered by Nicole Kidman was tinged with venom and madness, and Derek Jacobi played the self-righteous leader of the Magisterium with every ounce of skill he had.
My disappointment with The Golden Compass is that it has a running time of one hour, fifty-three minutes. In an era of long-ass movies, on the heels of the twelve hour extended uber-fantasy Lord of the Rings, director Chris Weitz took the bold step of shoehorning this story into a two hour slot. And it’s my belief that squeezing 200 minutes of fantasy movie into a 150 minute film has detracted from the experience. I wanted more of the actor’s performances than I got. I wanted to be watching a movie that didn’t feel as though it were stuck on fast forward. It barely made sense in places; how did the relationship between those two characters become so deep and strong so quickly? If you blink in some places, you’ll miss what’s happening, if you don’t listen very carefully, you’ll miss the important setup that the characters are talking about. Maybe it was just an odd side effect, that somehow the sense of time passing in the film wasn’t conveyed properly.
I really wanted to love this movie, but I only liked it. Damning praise, I know, but my standards are pretty high. I suspect that it will do well at the box office no matter what, as it’s a “kids’ movie” and parents will take their kids to a movie during the holiday season (and there’s no Harry Potter flick to compete with it). And there will surely be sequels no matter what. Really what I’m suspecting is that no one of these movies will be able to stand on its own – but I bet all three, probably even watched all at once, will make one fantastic story.
So, should you go see it? Well, it is a pretty dry season for movies right now. But if you’re like me, you’ll find that The Golden Compass goes down like Chinese food… you’ll be hungry for something else right after you finish.