Monday, June 16, 2008

The Golden Compass (live action movie)

In Lyra Belacqua's world, every person has something called a daemon, a creature that looks like an animal and is something like that person's soul. Lyra and her daemon, Pan, basically run wild at Jordan College in Oxford, but that changes when her uncle comes and she finds out about something called Dust. Lyra's best friend is kidnapped by a mysterious group called the Gobblers (later revealed to be the General Oblation Board), and Lyra eventually goes on a journey to find him. She travels with another group of people called the Gyptians, who are also searching for a kidnapped child, and makes friends with the gun-toting Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison, an exiled ice bear.

I had already read Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass several times before watching this movie, something that definitely colored how I felt about it. In most respects, the book is far better than the movie. However, I loved how the movie handled the daemons - aside from Pan's cat form, which looks horribly fake (it's something about the eyes and ears), most of the animals in the movie look excellent. I was very glad to see that the movie's creators had decided to treat the story's animals as they would any human character. These weren't amusing animal sidekicks, and the ones that spoke did so with normal sounding human voices, not fake-sounding cartoon voices. I especially loved the ice bears. It was wonderful actually being able to see them moving around and wearing their armor. I didn't really like Ian McKellan as Iorek's voice, at first, since his voice didn't seem deep enough for the part, but I got used to it.

Another thing I enjoyed about this movie was the environments. They didn't really inspire the same awe in me that seeing the world of Harry Potter in the first Harry Potter movie did, but it was still nice seeing the college, Mrs. Coulter's home, Lyra's Oxford, and more. I didn't really remember some of the Victorian-style technology being in the book (like the carriages that have spinning metal to keep them running, rather than horses), but since what there was of it fit with the look of the alethiometer and the not-quite-our-world feel, I didn't mind it and thought it was kind of cool.

The movie tries to follow the story, but there's not enough time to fit in everything so some scenes are cut and some characters are reduced or combined. This is why the movie falls short, I think. Characters that had a more fully-fleshed feel in the book, like Serafina Pekkala, were reduced to walk-ons that could barely have any impact on audience members who've read the book, much less on those who haven't. I won't go into the sorts of scenes that were probably cut out for time constraints, but I would like to write about some things that I suspect were cut out to make the movie more suitable for children.

The book this movie was based on had at least two children's deaths that I remember. I guess they decided that would be too horrible a thing to do in a movie children might be going to see (never mind that the book was also written for children), so those children's deaths were cut out of the movie. This wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't resulted in the complete erasure of some of the most wrenching moments in the book. In the book, the part where Lyra meets and interacts with the boy who's lost his daemon made me cry - in the movie, the boy becomes someone with family to comfort him, and his story is wrapped up by making it seem as though having his daemon cut away is something he can recover from. Also, the movie ends before Lyra and Roger reach Lord Asriel's prison - the result of this is that there's no evidence that Asriel is anything but a good guy, and there's none of the emotional impact of his betrayal (the betrayal of one of the few authority figures Lyra still completely trusts) and the result of that betrayal.

Although there are a few very violent scenes in this movie, there's no blood. There's battle involving guns and swords, but no one who gets shot or cut bleeds. Although I still think it's amusing that people think it's fine for children to view violence as long as there isn't any blood (wouldn't this teach them that violence has no consequences, if it teaches them anything?), I'm used to it, and it didn't really phase me. Parents would probably appreciate it. However, there is one scene that's pretty gruesome, even without blood. When Iorek fights the King of the Bears, things end when Iorek rips the king's jaw off and it flies towards the camera. There's no blood, even with a scene as gruesome as this, so it's a bit hard to tell what happened, but I was amazed that they kept something like this in the movie after they worked so hard to make it sterile and bloodless.

The one big issue that everyone focused on as a reason to hate this movie was the potential for anti-Christian aspects. There's not much in this movie for people with these fears to complain about. The Magisterium is obviously a bad group, what with them killing children in their pursuit of dust-less people, but the movie doesn't make much of an attempt to connect the Magisterium and the Church. The closest the movie comes to potentially offending Christians is when Mrs. Coulter tries to explain to Lyra why the General Oblation Board has been cutting daemons away from children. Basically, you can think of Dust as sin, children are in a state of innocence, and daemons whose forms have settled allow Dust/sin into their people. If you cut a child's daemon away from him or her, Dust/sin can't enter that child and he or she will continue to live in a state of innocence. If you read the books, you discover that Mrs. Coulter and the General Oblation Board assume that Dust in bad, when, in fact, it's just part of life and the universe - the movie doesn't get to the point where you find this bit out, so, as far as the viewers who haven't read the books are concerned, Mrs. Coulter and the General Oblation Board are doing terrible things in an attempt to do what they think is best for everyone.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie (anime movie) - In a world where alchemy is considered science, Ed and Al, two young brothers, have broken the primary rule of alchemy, the law of equivalent exchange. As a result, Ed lost an arm and a leg, and Al lost his whole body. Now they're on a journey to discover the Philosopher's Stone and use it to restore their bodies. This series has humor, drama, and action. There's also quite a few thoughtful moments, as the brothers try to think through what they need to do, what the potential costs are, and whether those costs are worth it. If you watched The Golden Compass and liked the environments, the feeling of a mix of science and magic, the hints of multiple worlds, and the action, you might like Fullmetal Alchemist. Both the anime and the manga are good, although the anime is very different from the manga after a certain point. Once you finish the anime, there's also a movie that wraps things up in a grand battles and multi-world spanning way - it's not advisable to watch the movie before finishing the anime TV series.
  • Last Exile (anime TV series) - Claus and Lavie are pilot and co-pilot of a Vanship (a flying machine) and act as couriers. The two of them get involves in a mysterious mission to return a little girl to a famous ship called the Silvana. Like the world of The Golden Compass, the world in Last Exile has a 19th century feel combined with amazing and beautiful technology. Those who want something with action, a far-reaching journey, and, eventually, undercurrents of machinations involving those in positions of authority might like this TV series.
  • Sabriel (book) by Garth Nix - Sabriel is in her last year at Wyverley College, which is located in an area where Magic doesn't work. When she finds out that her father is somehow trapped in Death, Sabriel must journey to the Old Kingdom, where Magic does work, in order to find him and save him. Sabriel, like her father, has the power to lay the dead to rest, and she must use this ability to save herself and those she befriends as she attempts to help her father. Like Lyra in The Golden Compass, Sabriel is a capable girl who is a bit vulnerable where her father is concerned. Readers who want something with magic, an interesting cast of characters, action, and a perilous journey might like this book. This is the first in Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy.
  • The Golden Compass (book) by Philip Pullman - If you watched the movie and liked it, or if you watched the movie and saw promise in the story and in the characters, you may very well like the book. As I've already said, the characters are better developed, the world is more realized, and things make more sense.

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