'Golden Compass' looks to cash in

Dakota Blue Richards, right, stars as Lyra Belacqua and Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek Byrnison in "The Golden Compass."

Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 6:52 p.m.

Ever since the "Harry Potter" movie franchise took over the box office in 2001, studios have been desperately trying to find the best way to cash in. I like to call it the Harry Potter sweepstakes - movie executives very carefully studied the creation of the Potter movies and tried to follow the same blueprint to create a new monster hit series of their own.


Nate rates it

  • "The Golden Compass" WATCH It

  • "Eragon" SKIP It

  • "Lemony Snicket" Rent it

  • Rating Key: Buy It - worth adding to your personal collection; Rent It - worth paying money to watch; Watch It - worth watching for free; Skip It - not worth watching at all

To date, no one has come up a winner. But now we have the newest entry in the sweepstakes, "The Golden Compass." Will it fair better than the other pretenders to the throne?

But before I take a closer look at "Compass," let me break down the cold, calculated steps that were taken in creating it. You see, in seeking the next "Harry Potter," filmmakers usually follow a few basic guidelines.

Step One: Find a popular line of books geared towards children that are also popular with grown-ups and have a large literary fan base. In this case, the source material is a trilogy called "His Dark Materials" by Phillip Pullman.

Step Two: Hire oodles of British and European actors. The movie may or may not be set in England, but it needs to have a British feel to it. In this case we've got Ian McShane, Ian McKellan, Christopher Lee, Derek Jacobi, Eva Green and Freddie Highmore, among others, backing up the lead adults Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman (who is Australian, but for all intents and purposes, might as well be British).

Step Three: Load up on excessive CGI special effects, because movie executives think moviegoers are so stupid that all it takes is good special effects to entertain them. "The Golden Compass" is rife with talking animals, flying witches, gloomy cityscapes, and magical outer-space fairy dust, but places too much emphasis on their visual appeal, and not enough on their significance.

Step Four: The last step used in fashioning an entry into the Harry Potter Sweepstakes is to make a movie that isn't a self-contained film, but a stepping stone to a series of movies. In "The Golden Compass," this translates into a maddening non-ending where the credits role and nothing has been accomplished.

Now that you have a clearer picture of the heartless mathematics that went into creating this film, we can get down to brass tacks. Because the principle problem with "The Golden Compass" is that it is painfully obvious that it was constructed to elicit maximum profit.

Of course, all movies are made to turn a profit. It's a business, and such is the nature of business. But movies themselves are art, to be made by artists, but sometimes you realize that a movie isn't trying to be artful, it's trying to sell merchandise. And in the case of "The Golden Compass" the makers cobbled together a blockbuster movie for the express purpose of making a sequel.

It's ridiculous, isn't it? The mere thought that anyone would look past a movie and treat it lightly, because they are saving up the good stuff for a sequel that might not ever be made. It happened with "Chronicles of Riddick," and "American Kickboxer 1," and now it's happened again with "Compass."

Dakota Blue Richards stars as a young orphan who comes into possession of a powerful artifact that can allow her to always see the truth. She becomes the target of the cruel Miss Coulter (Kidman), who wants the artifact for her own devious experiments. In this world, people don't have souls, they have talking animals called demons that serve as their out-of-body spirit guides. Dakota and her shapeshifting demon go on the run from Coulter and her quasi-religious government.

Their adventures take them to the great frozen north, where they meet Sam Elliott and help an exiled bear try and regain his status in the bear community. Everything comes to a head in one of those laborious battlefield engagements that seem to be mandatory in every fantasy film since "Lord of the Rings."

The acting is proficient, the effects are eye-catching, and the action scenes are well done. So what does "Compass" lack? It lacks heart and - even though we can see everyone's spirit on screen - it has no spirit of its own. And then there is the ending, which doesn't even have the stones to be a cliffhanger, it just stops in the middle of a scene and cuts to black.

"Compass" isn't a total waste of time. The armored polar bears are pretty cool, and it's good to see those baby dancing bears from the Coke commercials are still acting and haven't turned to stealing pic-a-nic baskets, as so many child stars do. But in the final analysis the movie is not worth spending a dime on.

"The Golden Compass" isn't the first to try and cash in on the "Potter" craze by putting an orphan in harm's way. Let's take a look back at a few of the other movies that grabbed for the brass ring, only to come up short.

"Eragon" - He isn't an orphan destined to be a great sorcerer, he's an orphan destined to be a great dragon rider. So as you can see, it's TOTALLY different from "Harry Potter." Skip It

"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" - Quirky, dark, macabre, and bizarre, this one does its best to be a complete movie while still setting up sequels. Overall, it's a great, fun film. Rent It

"The Seeker" - None of these movies would have a plot if it wasn't for a Chosen One. This young man is not very impressive as far as Chosen Ones go. Watch It

"The Chronicles of Narnia" - Although these books have been beloved for decades, they only got turned into movies as a way to grab a hold of that sweet, sweet "Potter" money. And possibly some "Lord of the Rings" money, as well. Watch It

And in June comes the next Sweepstakes entry, "The Spiderwick Chronicles."

Next week, beware! Lock your windows, bolt the doors, hide your sons and assume crash landing positions. It is a day that will live in infamy, when both "27 Dresses" and "P.S. I Love You" come home to roost, a day that I call "Attack of the Killer Chick Flicks part IV - The Final Chapter."

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