Sunday, 14 July 2024

For fantasy adventure, 'Golden Compass' seeks new direction

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (Rated PG-13)


It’s possible to appreciate “The Golden Compass,” a screen adaptation from author Philip Pullman’s book trilogy “His Dark Materials,” for its cinematic tradition of a magical and mystical world not far removed from the “Harry Potter” universe.


On the other hand, the controversy that swirls about Philip Pullman may cast a dark cloud on the whole enterprise. Religious groups voice objections to Pullman’s thematic direction, and even a quick check of the author’s Web site reveals his cynicism about organized religion and skepticism about the existence of God. Rather than resolving the theological questions, let’s look at the movie for what it is.


Frankly, “The Golden Compass” is clearly derived from source material that works better on the written page. From the start, the movie is loaded with a dizzying array of characters with agendas that need to be sorted out with a road map and a set of instructions.


The Magisterium is like a shadow government that seeks to control all of humanity, and of course it is run by some old white guys who look menacing even if they are doing nothing more than greeting a stranger. The unnamed Magisterial Emissary (Derek Jacobi) arches his eyebrows to signal his malice, all the while directing a council that wants to eliminate free will.


The Magisterium takes up the mission to call the work of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) heresy, because he embarks on a trip to the Arctic Circle to investigate a mysterious element called Dust, which apparently is a portal to a parallel universe.


Meanwhile, Asriel’s spunky young niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) lives an extraordinary life as a ward of the distinguished Jordan College, where she runs around unsupervised with her best buddy Roger (Ben Walker).


Everywhere she goes, Lyra is accompanied by her “daemon” Pan (voiced by Freddie Highmore), a small animal that changes shapes according to the mood of its human owner. It seems everyone has a “daemon,” which provides not-so-subtle clues about the personality of the owner, though in the case of children, the animal is a volatile and fluid creature.


Lyra’s free reign at Jordan College reaches an abrupt end when certain forces collide. First, thugs from the Magisterium want to shut down the institution because Lord Asriel’s research poses a threat. Then, rumors of the mysterious disappearance of children and their relocation to the remote north become terrifying real when Lyra’s best friend goes missing.


Lyra’s pledge to set forth on a rescue mission looks promising when Marissa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a beguiling scientist and world traveler, shows up at the college to take Lyra on a trip. Coulter’s true nature should be easily detected by the malevolence of her orange monkey “daemon.”


Soon enough it is clear that Coulter is up to no good. Lyra finds she has been drawn into a trap to take from her the one possession that the Magisterium desperately seeks. The object in question is the Golden Compass, a mystical device that acts as a guide to the future and reveals the truth of all matters.


Breaking free of the evil Mrs. Coulter, Lyra finds protection in a tribe of seafaring Gyptians. Together they form an alliance with mysterious witch Serafina (Eva Green) and Texas airman Scoresby (Sam Elliott), who looks as out of place in this movie as my mother would at a rock concert, but at least he’s a colorful character.


Up in the icy north, it gets even more interesting when the motley band of crusaders acquire a powerful ally in a great armored bear named Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellan), whose pledge to serve to the bitter end takes on real meaning.


Deep into the film’s running time, the payoff comes with pitched battles, one of them involving Iorek in his death match with the evil bear king Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane).


There’s a great battle of liberation at the Magisterium’s northern outpost where the children are held hostage. At the very least, “The Golden Compass” sparks enough exciting action near the end to rouse anyone from the doldrums.


The knock on this film is that there is too much plot development stuffed into its slightly less than two-hour running time. On the other hand, the visual appeal is enormously satisfying, with special effects powerfully realized. The airship carrying Mrs. Coulter and Lyra to the north looks like a fantastic Jules Verne creation.


But even as its seeks a new direction, “The Golden Compass” relies on many elements cobbled together from films ranging from “Star Wars” to “The Chronicles of Narnia.”


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


Hong Kong action cinema is always in plentiful supply. Directed by Johnny To, “Exiled,” full of bloody shoot-outs common to the genre, is about a Hong Kong mob boss who sends two killers after a renegade ex-gangster found hiding out in Macau with his wife and baby. In the meantime, two other hard men turn up to intervene, inadvertently sending things into a violent downward spiral.


More news on the martial arts front involves the Christmas Day release of Jackie Chan’s kung fu action comedy “Robin-B-Hood,” which showcases Chan’s trademark acrobatic fighting style and comic timing.


The story follows Chan as an unlucky gambler who resorts to robbery to pay off his debts. His luck gets worse when he and his pals kidnap a baby in exchange for a large ransom, only to become nannies to their captive.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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