Perhaps Peter Jackson's adaptation of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy spoilt movie goers everywhere, and raised the bar for such sword and sorcery movies based on literary classics. The written version, completed some 50-odd years ago, has arguably few or no peers in the same genre, and Jackson sealed his glory into the cinematic Hall of Fame with his vision of the story to critical acclaim and box office success, albeit taking some artistic license in his retelling.
In the wake of its box office triumphs in the year end seasons of 2001, 2002 and 2003, the juggernaut left a huge vacuum which has yet to be filled. Few have tried, and many had stumbled. First of all, making a movie based out of a book isn't easy, for the fact that there are always the purists taking potshots at it, and then there's the book's existence to which the movie will inevitably be compared with. The book may be on the bestseller's list for weeks, but that doesn't automatically transfer to box office longevity, even though there's already an established fan base.
There are those that succeed, like the Harry Potter franchise spawned off JK Rowling's creative mind, growing from strength to strength (and in duration too) with each movie release, despite having the outcome recently completed with the release of the 7th and last book, and with two more movies to go, gay revelations notwithstanding. I don't expect the series to falter in its run to its final movie installment, and this so despite having a musical chairs style appointment of directors. But of course the Potter movies alternate between the last quarter of the year and Summer, so you can't really tell whether this strategy of alternating holiday seasons will work for the other franchises, yet.
So the first pretender to adopt that strategy, happens to be The Chronicles of Narnia, with its Prince Caspian installment targeted for Summer 2008. The first movie, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, was released year end of 2004, and in my opinion was the bore despite wearing on its sleeve its pedigree based on the series of books by CS Lewis. Perhaps being the first off the block, it found itself being the first casualty to suffer from the wake of that vacuum created by LOTR. But you know as they say, when you're at rock bottom, the only way left to go is up, so I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that Prince Caspian would be a tad more interesting.
Then we have the relatively more contemporary wannabes. Eragon, based on Christopher Paolini's books, and The Dark is Rising, based on Susan Cooper's works. While they have won literary awards and the former writer being touted as a prodigy having written the first book when he was a teen, the movies however, share an air of familiarity with each other, and unfortunately, are movie ideas that had been recycled and reused in different forms. Again it translated to mediocre results, because of its one boy saving the world formulaic routine. You have hobbits (ok, they're child-sized, so sue me), you have Eragon, and you have Will Stanton, all possessing the one item that their corresponding baddies want to get, or being the saviour that should be dispatched (which is why The Dark is Rising failed with its laughable silly villain). Also, the special effects weren't all that groundbreaking (Eragon could have had its dragons look as good as Beowulf's), and a cast list made up of relative unknowns, who don't gel together as an ensemble. LOTR worked in these areas, having shrewd casting of its Fellowship (the balls to make last minute Aragorn changes, and Orlando Bloom who?) in getting the almost perfect ensemble, and visual effects that even trounced the Star Wars prequels, which were almost always automatic shoo-ins for the Oscars in this department.
So, does The Golden Compass finally get it right to plug the (industry interpreted) much-needed Christmassy sword and sorcery movie?
Originally published as Northern Lights in the UK, I suppose the Americans found it somewhat proper to have it retitled so that it matches the later installments of reference to inanimate, magical objects like The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, all authored by Philip Pullman. Think of it somewhat as Harry Potter with his Philosopher's and Sorceror's Stone, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on. The Golden Compass is a sword-sorcery era lie detector cum Magic 8 Ball if you will, ask it a question and it will give you that cryptic answer, decipherable only by the chosen one naturally, in this case, the child Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards).
I have not read the books, so to ignorant people like me, we are told in the prologue that the known universe is made up of many parallel worlds (which we will see only in the sequels), and in this one, every person has a Daemon, which is an animal representation of one's soul, kind of like the totems in the animated series Visionaries, only that they live side by side, and can be interacted with. Granted, if the Daemon/soul dies, the body dies with it too, and vice versa. We follow the exploits of Lyra, a natural liar, who gets in her posession The Golden Compass so that she can take it to Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who has set off to discover the origins of Dust (like Spice in Dune, only that it appears in the icy cold Northern regions, and looks very much like the Aurora Borealis, hence the English title Northern Lights), only that the concept of Dust is akin to original sin, thereby bringing allusions to religion into the plot.
Director Chris Weitz has stated that the religious overtones in the movie has been dumbed down, and that I agree. While The Authority and the Magisterium refers so obviously to God and the Church, these are mentioned only in passing, so much so that you do not even care much about the characters, and want your recognizable stars on screen as much as they can. Daniel Craig gets pretty much what you see in the trailer, save for something which I thought was quite Bond like with his experiencing what George Lazenby did during his stint On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Eva Green returns as a witchy archer (LOTR Reference #1), but thankfully doesn't share any screen time with Craig, lest we scream "Finish her, Bond!".
Nicole Kidman, given top billing in the movie, actually does quite little, with her Mrs Coulter, as head of the a secret police, much like any authoritarian regime would have. All she needed to do was to fit into beautiful gowns with some dalliances here and there, and that's it. Again, she doesn't share screen time with Criag, lest we scream "No! His body has been snatched!". So who does the weight of this movie fall on? Dakota Blue Richards.
Given that she's a fresh face picked from thousands of contenders, she ought to be good. And thankfully, yes. She becomes the new Frodo with her own Sam (LOTR Reference #2) - her daemon Pam (voiced by Freddie Highmore), gathering her own Fellowship from the likes of Gyptians (like Merry Men from Caribbean Pirates), witches, a renegade cowboy (Sam Elliott in yet another of such roles), and the Aragorn (LOTR Reference #3) of her gang, the Polar Bear prince-in-exile Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen, LOTR Reference #4) who saves her hide time and again. In fact, the polar bear hear provides much needed action entertainment, like an incredible Hulk each time brawn is required. While the movie is mainly talk and plenty of running away, the bear provides some balls in standing up and fighting for what's his, or what's contracted, hence becoming the highlight of the movie.
But as with all good things, if it's milked too often, the novelty wears off, such as having Lyra riding on his back like a girl on an amusement park pony ride. So nice was the animation and the grandeur of the scale, that we get to see it again, and again, and again. We don't want to see the bear as a pony, but an ass-kicking bad mofo since it talks so tough, get it? And the only other battle scene The Golden Compass has, is the final battle which is a notch better than that from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, probably assisted by less theatrics.
Granted, this movie is not about action, but I do want to add that it does help to spice things up in between the mumbo jumbo talk of the Magisterium feeling threatened, talks of Chosen Ones, and the threat of what could be the mother of all evil contraptions, which turned out looking like a human sized bird cage with the power to split out a human's soul, turning one into a mindless, obedient servant of the Magisterium, whose advice to the masses is always good and pure (yeah right, and hmm), and whose objective is to establish a nanny state. Probably those calling for the boycott of the movie will tell me that I miss out on the more obvious point that the story promotes atheism, but to that I say "pah", give me my year end sword and sorcery movie instead, without the hullabaloo of how it screws religion up, ala the big fight and debate with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code.
So how do you ensure success and fill the void left behind by LOTR? You start a new fellowship in the same vein. While the other failures like Eragon and The Dark is Rising might not get the opportunity to spawn sequels though they try to leave behind a cliffhanger, it is likely The Golden Compass would (unless the box office numbers prove otherwise), and if the formula is adhered to, we'll probably see more climatic battles, and a story that builds to a crescendo, but please, no more schizophrenic trilogy ending ok? And to complete the LOTR references, we have Christopher Lee rooting for the bad guys (reference #5), and one minor visual effects set piece involving a flimsy bridge (reference #6).
Some bits in the trailer, where Mrs Coulter screams "Child-bearer" (lol, I jest, but it really sounded something like that), and Lyra screams back "I'll never be yours!", never made it to the movie, and I suspect that the filmmakers shot more than what made the final edit, probably to add it into some 2-3 disc DVD collector's edition, or the mentioned square off intended for the sequels, in the way that this movie had set itself up for The Subtle Knife. And if you dig the Polar Bear Roar, stay until the end of the credits for one good fire-from-the-belly howl. Oh, and don't get me started on the numerous Star Wars references!
You can do a personality test at the official website to find out what you daemon might be. Mine's a tiger! ROAR!