Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007, Chris Weitz)

This one's got visual spectacle and invention out the wazoo, but it's curiously inert and joyless. A lot of that has to do with the nature of fantasy on film- more than any other genre, fantasy has a certain out-there element that tends to come off as goofy in the wrong hands, even with the best of source material. The key to doing fantasy well is to acknowledge the goofier aspects of the film, rather than trying to play them off with a straight face. Consider the difference between the infectiously cornball original Star Wars trilogy, with its gee-whiz hero and puppety oddball creatures, and the dour sequels, bogged down by galactic politics and thin-ass characters who Lucas tried to fob off as Shakespearean. So it goes with The Golden Compass, a perfectly serviceable fantasy movie that is rarely much fun. Oh sure, it's a treat for the eyes, with effects that don't aim for photorealism so much as a painterly beauty, and the sets and contraptions have a degree of wonder. But even from the beginning, the storytelling is so portentous that it becomes suffering. After all, we're talking about a movie in which the characters' souls manifest themselves externally as animals- surely you could have a little fun with this. There are a few moments in which the goofy stuff is played at the right pitch- the ursine battle only needed the Channel 4 News Team to become a bear fight for the ages- but not enough to make the movie enjoyable. Likewise, the only cast member who appears to be enjoying himself is Sam Elliott- Daniel Craig and Eva Green have almost nothing to do, and Nicole Kidman is perfectly OK in the as Mrs. Coulter, but although she's pretty and cold, a little comedic haughtiness would have served the role well. Also, Alexandre Desplat's score sometimes sounds a lot like the song "Somewhere Out There" from An American Tail, which got a bit distracting, as I doubt it was the filmmakers' intention to make me think of Feivel during the climactic ice battle. Still, hardly the worst post-Rings fantasy around, I suppose. Rating: 5 out of 10.

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