Sunday evening we got a sneak peek at New Line’s forthcoming epic adaptation, "The Golden Compass," the first of what producers hope will be a trilogy of films adapted from Philip Pullman‘s kid fantasy books.
Journalists piled into the Olympia and screenwriter-director Chris Weitz (director of "About a Boy" and also known as Chuck from "Chuck & Buck") gave a brief, yet charming introduction to the ten-minute clip that played very much like an extended version of the recently-released first trailer.
If you’re unfamiliar with the source material (as I admittedly am), "The Golden Compass" is the first of Pullman’s "His Dark Materials" series — a set of novels that seems very heady, very…British…as far as epic-scale, $150 million dollar CG-enhanced extravaganzas go. It’s set in a semi-modern utopia, where humans live by 19th century-like codes but develop and study fantastically advanced science. Everyone here has a daemon, or a companion animal, who embodies their soul and is one’s constant ally and guide. As with most human children, daemons change form until eventually settling on one animal, to represent that person’s fully-developed persona.
Director Weitz searched high and low to cast the central role of Lyra, and by early indications he’s discovered a talented, charismatic young actress in 13-year-old Dakota Blue Richards.
Richards’s character, an orphan raised in privelege, meets a bevy of adult characters in her journey across the landscape (and, presumably, into other worlds) played by thesps like Daniel Craig (as her academic guardian), Nicole Kidman (as a beautifully dangerous government liason), Eva Green (as a mysterious witch with uncertain motives), Ian McShane, Sam Elliott, and more.
But on to the footage. Take a look at the trailer up now here for a peek yourself, and you’ll see that the world Weitz has brought to the screen is a vast and impressive landscape of modernity, with an adventurous, distinctly British-looking touch (though Weitz himself is American). That means a sky boasting a looming, massive zeppelin and snow-covered Arctic scenery, plus flying witches, shape-shifting animals, and a talking polar bear. Said "armoured bear," a key character named Iorek that helps Lyra in her quest, is given significant front-and-center screen time and will likely draw the most scrutiny from hardcore CG enthusiasts.
Scenery and polar bears aside, a lot of the onscreen CG is also attributed to the various daemons that appear (and which are some of the more distinctive features of Pullman’s series).
The daemons we saw the most of in the trailer were Lyra’s companion, Pantalaimon (or Pan), who appears as both an ermine and a cat; Mrs. Coulter’s (Kidman) sly, dangerous golden marmoset; and the daemon of Lyra’s young friend Roger, who takes the form of a butterfly but is caught by Coulter’s monkey in one scene.
Also extended from the trailer was the introduction of Sam Elliott’s character, a — what else?? — cowboy named Lee Scoresby. Well, he’s more than just a cowboy, he’s a hot air balloon-flying aeronaut cowboy, and he helps Lyra and Iorek the armored bear out of a jam.
But "Compass" already looks to be more than your average "Narnia"-like kids adventure, thanks seemingly to the adult appeal of its source material. Pullman took his title from John Milton’s "Paradise Lost," for goodness sake, if that gives any indication of the literary and philosophical ideas at the story’s root.
Somehow, the literary heritage lends itself very much to the film’s British sensibility; one gets the inkling that this could be a way to get the young kids reading classics (or even some grown-ups). Weitz even deliberately kept the bulk of his cast British, and studied literature at Cambridge.
As far as the preview scenes can show, Dakota Blue presents herself strongly as Lyra, with a challenging gaze and sense of wonder so charismatic that it’s not hard to believe she can carry the film (and, eventually, a three-part film series).
Likewise, the central adult roles seem distinctively written; Craig as wealthy scientist Lord Asriel has a respectable stiffness about him, but charisma crackles under the surface of control as it did when he was Bond. Kidman is a beautiful ice queen as the sinister Mrs. Coulter. Green (who, before you ask, does not share any scenes with her "Casino Royale" co-star) plays a witch queen whose motives we really know very little about, but who flits about in wispy witch clothes quite alluringly.
To be honest, it’s hard not to compare "Compass" at some basic level to the recent "Chronicles of Narnia," another British child protagonist fantasy adventure, loaded with CG landscapes and talking creatures, adapted from a popular series and already headed toward franchisedom.
The filmmakers, of course, dismiss any comparisons; "Compass" is set in a specific, distant universe, with its own mythos and science to obey and its own embedded messages to convey. It also has more star wattage in its grown-up stars, and a single, charismatic child lead to focus on — all reasons why some viewers may latch on harder.
But perhaps CG will be the deal-breaker in lodging "Compass" free, for good or bad, from its peers. Too much dependence on CG for landscaping has in the past been too perfect and distracting ("Attack of the Clones") or too superficial and unbelievable ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"). Further, the all-CG character of Iorek the armored bear may invite criticism due to sheer screen time; the preview footage ended with a rather impressive, though quickly edited, snarl of in-your-face Iorek bear action. To some extent, it may not really be possible to make a convincing talking animal on screen, no matter how deftly crafted. (Aslan, I’m looking at you.)
More on "The Golden Compass" later; the New Line release hits theaters in December. Click here for our full coverage of the 60th Cannes Film Festival!