Animal Nonmagnetism

'The Golden Compass' proves that blasphemy can be extremely boring

I've never understood why blasphemy was a crime. I mean, if you insult me, my feelings get hurt, but that's because I'm a whiny crybaby with a fragile ego. If you insult God, though, you've got to figure He shrugs it off like the New England Patriots shrug of 10-point deficits, defensive linemen and charges of cheating.

So when I hear about people protesting a film because it insults God, I'm thinking they have a pretty petty notion of God. As a proposal, then, I'd ask that we refer to the God that these people are talking about as "The Whiny Crybaby God," and use the short form, "God," for the concept of the perfect being who is unhurt by not only sticks and stones, but names as well.

I mention this, because perennial crybaby and part-time anti-Semite William Donahue, head of the ironically titled Catholic League, gave The Golden Compass a little publicity boost by organizing a protest against it before he'd even seen it. "Grand," I thought as I headed off to the theater, "a film full of blasphemy! What could be more entertaining?"

Nasal spray, bloody cuticles and shoelace manufacturing, just to mention three things. It's truly stunning that someone could take blasphemy and make it dull, but writer/director Chris Weitz has done just that with his adaptation of Philip Pullman's novel.

Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that Weitz has removed all the blasphemy. I tried to read the novel to see if this was true, but three pages of Pullman's atrocious prose prevented me from going any further. For example, the first line of the book is, "Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall ... ." Darkness gets mentioned twice more in the next 20 lines, so you know this is going to be a quality literary experience.

But prose isn't the thing of the screen, and the rumor is that Pullman's story was brimming with anti-church allusions and allegories. There's some of that in the film version, but mostly what you have is a sort of March of the Wooden Soldiers for the CGI generation.

The basic story involves a young girl, an alternate dimension, an evil church-like organization and some armored polar bears. Now imagine putting that through an electronic flavor-removing machine, and you've pretty much got it.

While I expect blandification from Hollywood, I was surprised at how lifeless the whole thing looked. In spite of sumptuous sets that evoke a sort of 1920s magnificence filtered through a fantasy lens, the cinematography looks like it was done by a sad little robot who just wished he could understand what "art" was. All the standard shots are there: Camera descends behind a fence, flies over running heroes and surveys the scene, but it's all pure information, with only the most trite attempts at style.

Even worse is the acting of Nicole Kidman as the evil Marisa Coulter, emissary of "The Magisterium." Her face is freakishly frozen into a plastic-surgery love-doll look. When the camera zooms in, you can also see the inch-thick coat of makeup slowly flaking off her nerve-deadened forehead. In some ways, this kind of works, since Coulter is supposed to be in charge of hunting children, and Kidman looks like she'd be willing to inject the pituitary extracts of freshly killed kids into her chin to keep it wrinkle-free. Of course, the lack of expression makes her seem vapid, but, like, evil vapid.

Although Kidman is terrible, most of the rest of the cast is impressive, which makes this film even sadder. Among the many talents uselessly tossed at this thing are Daniel Craig, Ian McKellen, Eva Green, Ian McShane, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates and Derek Jacobi. Sadly, many of them are unseen, lending their voices to CGI animals.

Which is really the formula behind this film: Though there's a story about rescuing captured children, the real focus of the film is on the amazing polar bears and metamorphosizing cat-bird-ocelots, and buzzing mechanical mosquitoes and evil monkey rapists and such--all of which holds little appeal for grown-ups, I fear, though I think kids who are old enough to sit through the film's nearly two hours will be enchanted.

They'll also get some strange racial politics. For some reason, in the world in which The Golden Compass is set, race determines character. Thus, the scruffy Gyptians are good-hearted folks, while the evil Samoyed (yes, they use the name of a real people here, which strikes me as mildly improper) are cold-hearted killers. Polar bears, on the other hand, can be either good or evil, so at least it's not a bearist or bearophobic film.

For the most part, though, you just watch a lot of expensive sets and technologically impeccable imagery pass pointlessly before your eyes. With Weitz trying to make everything spectacular, no moment feels any more important than any other, and the plot seems like just a device to hang the devices on. I suppose if you're in the mood for some Xmas atheism, and you can get through the candy colors to the supposed message beneath, this might be a worthwhile outing, but for the most part, the parade of animated animals is all noise and furry, signifying money.

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