02 January 2008

The Real Star of The Golden Compass?

All along, my main question about the Golden Compass movie was whether it would get Iorek Byrnison right. Would the studio be able to find just the right polar bear to play the part?

Fortunately, New Line studio also saw the polar bears as crucial to the movie. It found an ursine actor named Ian McKellen for the part--I hadn't even known there were polar bears in the British Isles. He turned in a fine performance, making Iorek The Golden Compass's equivalent of Aslan in Narnia, as the Shortpacked webcomic knows.

Iorek's scenes could have been even more effective, though. I recognized dialogue and action from the book in the scene that introduced him, but it still seemed surprisingly inert for one that involves a half-drunk polar bear smashing apart a building.

I went back to reread that part of The Golden Compass, and realized how heavily condensed it had been. Two long scenes were compressed into one, many details were removed (e.g., Iorek has to retrieve his armor from the local priest, for the first time we feel Lyra and her daemon Pan separating), and we never see Lyra restraining Iorek's killing instincts. Philip Pullman's narrative voice disappears, too, of course.

Such compression is necessary for a movie, of course, but in this case the result felt slower, not faster. Which leads me to quote Eoin O'Faolain at Screenhead criticism about The Golden Compass's drab pacing and repetitive plot twists:

Weitz’s utter lack of...ability to generate excitement through a sense of adventure is disappointingly evident throughout the entire movie. The film uses the old “hero is about to be killed but at the last second is saved by an ally” device four times in a row, making the action scenes rather bland. Characters appear and disappear in the movie having little valid reason to be there (while the witches are important in the books, they acted as a mere deus ex machina in the film).
(I believe that should be "deae ex machina.")

O'Faolain also criticizes Weitz for not being able to muster any "visual panache," but there I disagree: as a series of still pictures, The Golden Compass looked mighty good. But in its dialogue and in how those pictures move from one to another, in how new elements enter scenes, it felt a little too draggy and familiar. For example, I could have done with about half the number of golden-hued special-effects shots of what Lyra sees in her alethiometer.

The first time the movie sprang to life for me was Iorek's duel with another armored polar bear. That might have been because at long last there was no leaden dialogue explaining everything. Alas, we never got to see the bears' catapult attack on an airship, which appears in the book's final chapters; I've been waiting to see that scene for years now.

Instead, The Golden Compass's action climax is a long battle on an icescape--a scene with a fine cinematic antecedents, from Alexander Nevsky to The Empire Strikes Back. But here the movie's visual acuity failed. It's important to light such a battle so the audience can see what's happening. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of dim men in fur coats swinging at each other.

1 comment:

gail said...

Iorek Byrnison saved this movie for me. I felt as if Ian McKellan wasn't doing Byrnison's voice, he was actually playing him there on the screen. I thought the bear actually looked like him in some shots. (Though the guy with me thinks I'm totally wrong on that point.)

Regarding the witches--the main witch had such a minor role in the movie, that she didn't seem to need to be there at all. Except, of course, for bringing in the reinforcements at the big battle.

I also felt the cowboy didn't have the same emotional power he had in the book. Like everything else, he looked absolutely fantastic but...

I'm probably fortunate in that I read the book maybe 8 years ago. I was underwhelmed by the movie but not as disappointed as the fans who had more knowledge of the source material.