I watched The Golden Compass the other day in Taipei. Having read the original trilogy, I knew what to expect – telescoping of plot, removal of some of the less political-correct issues, and exaggeration of action scenes. And hey, all three happened.
The main issue with the movie is mainly that, it moves too fast. Like Mission:Impossible 3 and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there are so many things happening with so many characters that it gets disorienting. In some cases, it’s worst here, because of all the one-shot characters which are not named, but simply brought in to play some meaningful role in the story then disappear.
Funnily enough, the most egregious examples were Serafina (the witch) and Iorek (the bear). Despite being big, named characters, they just go through their introduction sequences, then are tossed into the kitchen sink of deus ex machina until they’re needed again. Serafina only appeared once before the battle scene, where she literally teleports out of nowhere to save Lyra. And apparently, Iorek has active camouflage or something, because he tends to pop up whenever it’s most impressive for a hulking 7-feet polar bear to rear up and roar.
As for plot mashing, I’ve already stated the problem – too many plotlines. Lord Azrael gets captured? But now, Lyra gets attacked again! Oh, but now, Mrs. Coulter is going to deliver some criptic and vague foreshadowing! It seems like they just blended together as many important plots and events as possible with no regard for smooth flow of story.
The battle scene at the end definitely felt tacked-on. It seems every fantasy film after The Lord of the Rings must include a war sequence – the messier, the better. The sudden appearance of ‘allies’ were a worse plot contrivance than Tolkien’s eagles. It would have been much better to save the major fighting for the last film, when the ‘rage against the heavens’ ordeal comes crashing in.
The big problem stems from the fact that the trilogy is simply very broad in scope. There are a half-dozen (and growing number of) plotlines running in parallel that wind together at the end, so I’m not sure if they intentionally made it so confusing or not. I really don’t see how anyone who hasn’t read the books is going to really understand what’s going on – the witches going to war, Azrael trying to open a path to another world, the mess with Svalvard, Mrs. Coulter’s role, the Magisterium, etcetera et al… and all this before the male lead even shows up.
One thing I did like was how they delayed the story at the end – the movie ending with Lyra, Roger, Iorek, Lee and Serafina all on the balloon was a good touch. and perfectly sets up an exciting opening for the second film.
tl;dr – It’s not a bad movie at all. In fact, given the material, it’s very well done. Naturally, as an adaptation, it could’ve been much better, but as a fantasy movie, it’s a definite step up from The Chronicles of Narnia.