The Golden Compass on DVD

The Golden Compass on DVD. Similar to Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium in many ways, this children’s film with a stellar cast and visual effects tackles several adult themes such as trust, honor and free will. However, this picture is much darker in tone and is really an adventure tale with more action sequences, whereas Magorium was more character-driven. It’s set in a parallel universe where witches fly the skies, but airplanes do not. Human souls exist outside the physical bodies and appear as animals, similar to some Native American philosophy. And a powerful organization known as the Magisterium is attempting to complete its world dominance by separating the souls of all children from their physical bodies, thereby eliminating their free will and making them more controllable. In order to perfect the separation process, children are being kidnapped and taken to a laboratory in the frozen north (depicted by beautiful landscape scenes of Norway).

Our hero is Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a young girl studying at Oxford, who sets off to rescue her kidnapped friends. Before departing, the college master gives her the last remaining golden compass, a magical instrument that can show its owner the way to the truth. As Lyra’s journey progresses, she is seduced and betrayed by agents of the Magisterium (Nicole Kidman), rescued by witches and gypsies, who teach her how to use the compass, and befriended by others, including a Texan zeppelin pilot (Sam Elliott, one of my favorite actors) and an exiled polar bear prince, who in this universe has the power of speech. Eventually, all obstacles are overcome and the children reunited with their families.

However, I wish I had known beforehand that the movie was based on a trilogy of books, because the ending is quite abrupt and leaves many loose ends to be resolved. Imdb reports that several additional scenes from the book’s ending were shot but deleted by the studio, which hopes to include them in the requisite sequels.

There is a lot going on in this film and it is easy to get confused. It appeared that some of the souls could talk, while others could not. Witches appear en masse for battle, but then disappear again. The fate of the children who went through the experimental process and their souls is never discussed. There’s a small sub-plot involving Lyra’s father/uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and some mysterious “dust” that allows travel between universes, but it is never resolved. Even one bonus feature explaining things would have been helpful, but the dvd has none.

Some critics see the Magisterium as a negative representation of religion and have labeled the movie as “atheist.” The movie is based on the books of Philip Pullman, a known atheist, and the theme of free will is prevalent, but I did not see any overt religious references. In fact, director Chris Weitz attempted to eliminate any direct references to religion or God, an action that antagonized devoted readers of the books. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

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