The Golden Compass is interminable. “Oh,” you will cry, while attempting to slit your wrists with the frayed edges of a popcorn box, “why in the name of sweet zombie Jesus will it not end?”
It’s like someone with a short attention span had read a copy of Phillip Pullman’s novel The Northern Lights and then attempted to explain the plot to an intellectually-challenged friend. It rambles from scene to scene without direction or purpose, omitting important plot points and jumbling others together with a total lack of regard for narrative continuity. Some scenes are rendered in lovingly gratuitous detail, while others futz around like small brain-damaged children trying to find a wedding dress in a blizzard.
The film follows the adventures of Lyra, a girl with a mysterious but unexciting past and a mysterious but vague destiny who sets out to find a friend who isn’t very interesting and an uncle that she never actually ends up locating. Along the way she hooks up with a variety of poorly-explained characters on an epic quest to stop a possibly-maybe war between some as yet-unidentified factions, which threatens to destroy an infinite number of parallel worlds that you never actually get to see any of. The whole thing comes to a jerking halt some several chapters short of where the novel ended with a kind of bashful “sorry folks, we’ve run out of time” air pervading the finale.
There’s quality to be found here, to be sure, but the process of looking for it is like an unrewarding cinematic Where’s Wally? The Ice Bears, which the film’s posters have made much of, look absolutely fantastic, and the two set-piece scenes starring the CG-animated Iorek Byrnison are far and away the strongest parts of the movie. The Ice Bears are essentially what you’d get if a civilization of Tolkien dwarves grew fur and paws, but that doesn’t stop Iorek from being the best armour-smithing orc-smiting gold-mining Gimli ever.
Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman put in plucky performances as Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter respectively, but Craig’s total time on screen can be counted on the fingers of both hands, and despite a strong attempt in the role by Kidman she is brutally miscast as the aging authoritarian Coulter. Child actress Dakota Blue Richards is more or less competent as Lyra but you’re unlikely to be starting fan tributes to her any time soon.
The pacing is appalling; Lyra spends much of the time floating dispassionately from one scenario to the next with no clear mission or motivation. It’s not clear what she’s ultimately trying to achieve and most of her allies seem to just be killing time rather than pursuing any vital objective of their own. In my imagination, entire scenes of the script simply read, “Lyra languishes. Those around her look pensive.” In the session I saw, small children were asking their parents if the movie was over yet, and then crying when told that it wasn’t.
The film is not so generically bowel-threatening as to be without charm for all audiences. Those with a lot of patience and a deep-seated love for talking animals may well wring a couple of hours of entertainment out of the thing. It’s reasonably visually accomplished and looks quite good when no one in it is moving or talking, and the whole thing is set to one of those simperingly inoffensive epic fantasy scores that we’ve come to expect in post-Lord of the Rings Hollywood. Also, while the movie totally failed to justify its own existence, it quite successfully sold me on the idea that I might want to read the book it was based on.
I can’t say that you should avoid this movie like a crossdressing vampire, no matter how much I’d like to, and if you think you might enjoy it you should probably pony up the dosh necessary to be disabused of that opinion. But if you were already unconvinced of The Golden Compass’ alleged eloquent charm then this is almost certainly not the movie for you, and you probably haven’t seen the really rather good Stardust more times than you can stand yet, so you should go and rewatch that instead. Right now.