Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Golden Compass

A couple of weeks ago I finally watched The Golden Compass. Now, my failing to do so before really was only due to the fact that I almost never watch movies in the theatre anymore. I've read Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and really liked it, and I was looking forward to the movie before it came out. Just never made it to cinema, that's all. DVD is where it's at for me, mainly due to the demands of having kids and choosing to do other things if I have some spare time (like play MMORPGs!).

I really, really enjoyed the movie. The reviews I'd read were kind of scattered and varied: some good, some not so good. But I thought the movie was great! Very good f/x, extremely good cast (the child actors blow the Harry Potter crew and the Narnia crew out of the water imo), awesome recreation of the world from the books and in spite of my fears, they did stay true to the spirit of the books - for example that The Magisterium is a) religious and b) not nice. My husband, who had not read the books, said he could follow the story no problem and he also really enjoyed the ride. Sure, I would have liked the movie to end the way the book did, but I guess they wanted a cliffhanger.

Sadly, though this movie did pretty good business in the world outside North America, it did have a rather disappointing box office in the US. After seeing it, I'm really wondering why. Was it marketed wrong? Is it the fact that the protagonist is a girl rather than a boy? Are the books just not that well known? Or was it the dreaded religious boycotting that worked? I've heard from people I know online that there was a rather broad and concerted effort in many Christian circles to get people to stay away from the movie. Telling people it dissed religion, was blasphemous, evil, whatever. Obviously the fact that the writer is an avowed atheist who makes no bones about his dislike of organized religion added to the bad feelings. Yet the movie apparently did ok in places like Italy and other catholic-dominated European countries.

To quote a very good article in Variety:

The sheer scale of the foreign success for "Golden Compass" -- $264 million and counting, with the prospect of another $40 million from Japan and China -- poses awkward questions about that New Line's domestic failure with the movie.

Clearly, "Golden Compass" was not as unmarketable as the U.S. figures would suggest. "If the movie really wasn't up to snuff, it wouldn't have done $300 million," Forte says.

Excuses that fantasy pics often do better in foreign, or that the film's perceived anti-God message was a more powerful negative in the U.S., have a certain truth, but can't fully explain the unprecedented gulf.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the foreign indies such as Entertainment in the U.K., Metropolitan in France, Tripictures in Spain, 01 in Italy and Gaga in Japan, not to mention Warner in Germany, simply did a better job of understanding and positioning "Golden Compass" as a family film, and heading off the potential problems in advance, than New Line's domestic team did.

Take Italy, a heavily Catholic country where the pope himself blasted "Golden Compass" as "the most anti-Christmas film possible." The movie nonetheless overcame a weak opening to gross a perfectly decent $15 million.

Whatever the reason, I'm saddened that it did not do better because now it seems the sequels may not happen. Which really sucks because from what I saw in The Golden Compass, this movie-making team and this brilliant cast (Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliot, Eva Green... what a frikking cast! and all perfect fits for their roles) would have given us a fantastic fantasy ride if given the chance.

I wonder a little bit if Pullman's oft-quoted disdain for Tolkien also added to the poor box-office? Maybe some fantasy geeks stayed away because of that? I sure hope not. I love Tolkien's work, but also thoroughly enjoyed reading His Dark Materials and watching the movie. It's a very original work and so totally different than Tolkien's or CS Lewis' stuff. Sure, they all get lumped together as fantasy, but that label is pretty much all they share. There may be magic and talking "animals", as in daemons, in Pullman's story but there are certainly no elves, dwarves, or hobbits.

I wish this movie had done better than it did. I wish it had done better than the Narnia movies, because those movies are imo completely Disney-fying CS Lewis' world. And I wish they'd even beaten the Harry Potter movies (there was never a chance of that though), because the HP movies are, imo, like clip shows of moments from the books and the acting... well, I think it leaves a lot to be desired. Dakota Blue Richards who plays Lyra is a real find. She's in pretty much every scene of the movie and the whole story rests on her, and she totally carried it. Wonderful work! In short, I think The Golden Compass is the best fantasy movie of the last few years, after LOTR. I can only hope that someone with some money and some clout steps in and gets the sequels made.

I'll be keeping an eye on the official movie site and a couple of fansites (Bridge To The Stars and HisDarkMaterials.org) to see how this all shakes out.

Promotional stills from "The Golden Compass", thanks to imdb.com.

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