With the figure of $180 million spinning in your head (what, this cost almost as much as all three Lord Of The Rings combined?), and great chunks of exposition served with all the panache of a bone-tired caff waitress clanking down a plate of dry toast and cold eggs, there are moments in The Golden Compass when your heart plummets.
Anticipation never reached the fever pitch that preceded Rings or even The Chronicles Of Narnia, because die-hard fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy knew full well that it was going to be one tough cookie to crack. After all, you’ve got a religion-kicking storyline that knits in parallel worlds, animal manifestations of human souls (aka ‘daemons’) and a truth-telling gadget called an alethiometer that, in Chris Weitz’s too-hasty narrative, possesses none of the world-shaking gravity of the One Ring, despite Compass’ fiendish types wanting it so badly.
And then… Nicole Kidman gets one of those magnificent movie entrances that screams ‘enchanting villainess’ (as we’ve said before, she’s dream casting as Mrs Coulter) when she strolls into the grand hall of Jordan College and introduces herself to Compass’ plucky heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards). Eva Green flits out of the sky as the sexiest witch imaginable, and an exquisitely rendered CG snow bear (voiced grumpily by Ian McKellen) engages in an almighty scrap that redefines jaw dropping (make that jaw ripping…). It’s the most frustrating aspect of The Golden Compass: that it gets so much right and comes this close in its Herculean efforts to give us a thriving, thrilling fantasy-adventure franchise involving children and the cruel, callous adults out to make their lives a misery.
Getting really picky, Pullman’s legions will wonder why more attention wasn’t paid to Lyra’s deep friendship with Roger (Ben Walker) while they’re still carefree and bratty at Jordan College, before all the Magisterium-motivated hoo-ha kicks off – scenes that would have paid off in emotional spades later. The first Harry Potter’s duff qualities were outweighed by the fact that the franchise had Warner Bros’ absolute commitment.
The Golden Compass, on the other hand, clips off at a wholly unsatisfying moment that not only cries out for extra running time to reveal the next stage in Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and Lyra’s entwined destinies, but feels all the more lame as a so-called cliffhanger when you realise parts two and three may never happen if this one doesn’t pack its studio’s coffers with lucre. That would be a desperately sad conclusion to reach for a franchise-hopeful whose flaws could surely be smoothed over by a savvier filmmaker than Chris Weitz (look what happened when subsequent Potters were parcelled out to more visionary minds), who, for all his fleetingly inspirational toil, isn’t the new Peter Jackson.
Nicole Kidman's glittering villainess, some gorgeously rendered CG design and a bolshy, 11-year-old heroine can't entirely rescue this $180-million franchise gamble from a juddering, shuddering outcome. Not a failure by any stretch, but Compass leaves its future hanging in the balance.