Peter Jackson, listen up: Just because a film details an epic adventure doesn’t mean it has to last three hours. That’s right, J.R.R. Tolkien fans “The Golden Compass,” a likable, visually impressive adaptation of Philip Pullman’s 1995 bestseller, has all the intrigue of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy but none of the yawn-inducing running times. If anything, “The Golden Compass,” which clocks in at just under two hours, ends too soon, leaving viewers eager, right then and there, for more. (Call me batty, but this reviewer can’t remember a single person leaving a “LOTR” film and remarking, “Gee, that movie ended way, way too soon.”)
“The Golden Compass,” though, does weave a fairly complex plot which requires some explanation. At the heart of the film is Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a spritely young girl and prankster who spends her days scaling the rooftops of the university where her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), teaches. Her carefree days come to an abrupt end, though, when she meets icy Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), agrees to travel with her to the North and discovers Coulter is part of a sinister underground organization that kidnaps and experiments on young children including Lyra’s best friend Roger (Ben Williams). Lyra makes it her mission to rescue Roger, and she gathers a unique assortment of helpers along the way. There’s Lee Scoresby (the always watchable, husky-voiced Sam Elliott), a tough-as-nails pilot; Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen), a gruff “polar bear for hire” of sorts; and Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), a mysterious but good-hearted witch. Helpful, too, is Lyra’s alethiometer, or golden compass, which reveals the true answer to any question … and only Lyra possesses the power to use it.
Like any book-to-film adaptation, some things in “The Golden Compass” get lost in translation. There are potentially intriguing, rich characters (like Scoresby and Pekkala in particular) about whom we know very little; they feel like collateral damage in the effort to pare down length. The most controversial element of Pullman’s book — the figurative “death of God” in society — gets watered down, perhaps to increase the film’s marketability. As reimagined by director Chris Weitz, “The Golden Compass” is a film about the quest for truth and knowledge (called “dust”), a quest the ruling body (dubbed the Magisterium) would kill to stop. This concept works swimmingly in a coming-of-age movie like this, but the blunting of the book’s sharpness is disappointing nonetheless.
However, these are minor quibbles with a movie that’s as thought-provoking as it is thrilling to watch. The animation is well-done and occasionally inspired, particularly the scene where two polar bears battle for rights to a kingdom — perhaps the tensest moment in “The Golden Compass.” The acting is solid as well, with Kidman perfectly cast as the frigidly menacing Coulter and Elliott sinking his teeth into what might have been a throwaway bit part. Roberts is a major find, a plucky young talent with an expressive, open face and a Tom Sawyer-like curiosity about the world. She’s one to watch.
There’s little doubt that there will be people (aren’t there always?) who won’t see “The Golden Compass” because they believe it’s a dangerous work of heresy. What a shame that is, for this stunningly beautiful, intelligent adaptation is meant to be experienced. The film is not some bitter, topsy-turvy argument in favor of atheism. No, “The Golden Compass” is a grand journey, a film that reminds us, gently and quietly, that the quest for knowledge, for truth and purpose, must be an individual pursuit. And ultimately, the idea explored in “The Golden Compass” is a familiar, timeless one: Is the unexamined life really worth living? Plato knew that, but viewers will have to decide for themselves. There are no pat answers to be found here. Still, that’s not bad for a film where nothing gets pitched into a volcano (sorry, Tolkienites).