The Golden Compass (***)

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Can a film adaptation of a much loved book still work after the story is hacked to pieces, the meaning is drained, and the whole damn point of the thing is compromised? True, most film versions of books compromise or change the vision, but the basic underlining plot/point of the story is still there. A problem many fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, unread by me as of this writing, are having with The Golden Compass, the first part of his trilogy, is that a lot of the real meat of the story has been taken out.In the books, I guess, they deal heavily with the end of religion, and the idea that God is a dying has-been. The Magisterium, who in the books are a religious organization unlike the Catholic Church, are here represented as, basically, a fascist regime. The whole basic idea of the story has changed, in order for Hollywood to film the story. That being said, the film was still protested by lots of people who didn’t read the book or see the movie, and, when the film bombed at the box office, many believers felt that the Hand of God had swept down and intervened (wow, that sounds like a good movie!)As someone who has never read the books (though I must say, they sound pretty intriguing), I found the film to be an enjoyable enough fantasy film for kids, harmless, suspenseful, with lots of good performances and some nifty special effects. It’s another fantasy film with a “chosen one,” this time her name is Lyra (played by Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan who will become…crucial to the plot of not just this film, but the next two. The film is populated by many good actors in convincing roles, Daniel Craig as her brilliant, cranky uncle, Nicole Kidman as the icy witch who pursues Lyra, Sam Elliot portrays, get this, a cowboy, and the film also has choice roles for Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee and Tom Courtney. Ian McKellen, who you may recognize from some other fantasy series you may have heard of, steals the show as the warrior Iorek Byrnison, an alcoholic Ice (polar) Bear.The special effects in this film are pretty good, in the world where The Golden Compass takes place, every person’s soul is represented as an animal that walks alongside them (known as a “daemon”). The daemons, the vehicles, the buildings, the massive brawl between the king of the Ice Bears and Iorek, are all terrific special effects. As is expected with a complicated fantasy film that clocks in under two hours, a lot of the movie is going to feel rushed and confused. The ending, I hear, is very different than the ending of the book, and will be the beginning of the sequel.The young lead, Dakota Blue Richards, is well-cast, she’s noble, fiery and has a cool sounding name. As I said earlier, all of the better-known actors in the cast play their parts very well, and like to give extra credit to Sam Elliot, one of the few actors who can act opposite a talking polar bear and not sound ridiculous. I also enjoyed Simon McBurney’s small role as Fra Pavel, the sneaky henchman for the Magisterium.The Golden Compass is entertaining, but it doesn’t stay with you and linger in your mind the way you’d think it might. Directed by Chris Weitz.

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