I suspect that many reviews of this movie are going to begin with some variant of the sentiment, “I was disappointed.” This one is no exception. It’s just not a very good movie; it’s one that packed in lots of miscellaneous detail from the book it is based on, but thereby threw away the core of the story … and it shows. It’s a movie that races along inventively, but futilely, leaving you wondering at the end what the point of all the rushing about of armies of strange characters was all about.
This is an intrinsic problem to translating Pullman’s books to a different medium. They aren’t just a medieval world with elves and magic rings added—they are fundamentally askew in a thousand different ways, and while a book can take the time to set them up and explain them, a movie can’t. At least, this movie couldn’t. For instance, one of the climactic battles in the movie has a flock of witches swooping in to save the good guys, but doesn’t address anywhere the basic, non-fantasy questions here: how did the witches get there? How did they know to come to this remote spot in the Arctic? Why are they helping our heroine? It begins to seem entirely arbitrary; the witches are cool, they’re in the book (where their motivations are actually explained), so presto, they must be in this scene. Everything seems to be arbitrary; interesting characters gallop on stage, speak a handful of lines, and then scurry off to make room for the next oddity in the parade.
The Dark Materials books are fascinating precisely because Pullman doesn’t shy away from tossing in strange details and peculiar backstory; it all hangs together like some elaborate clockwork, with a clutter of cogs and wheels and gears all spinning away to keep the story moving in a clear direction. The writers behind this adaptation seem to have preserved as many of the cogs as they could, but at the expense of throwing away the story that kept them meshed. What this movie demanded was a complete rewrite that ruthlessly pared away many of the intricacies but kept the core intact.
Of course that couldn’t happen. Fans of the story would have a checklist of their favorite cogs, and a movie that altered any of the elements would have roused howls of protest from the fanbase, who wouldn’t give a damn about narrative economy. The other is that exposing the thrust of the story would have driven the non-fanbase nuts. This is a coming-of-age story set in a conflict with an evil religious empire bent on expanding their control, and willing to experiment on children to do it. It’s barely detectable in this movie. I think if the producers had been a little braver and set this up as a clearer parable for the dangers of wedding political control and religious belief, it would have been a much more comprehensible and powerful movie.
Another fundamental flaw is that the movie is disneyfied. It’s aimed at kids and anything that might trouble an imaginary Pollyanna has been stripped away. No children die anywhere in the story, for instance; in the book, the experiments of the Magisterium kill children or drive them into a horrible madness from which they don’t recover. In the movie, we see one child who has had his daemon snipped away from him … before he is restored to his mother and vanishes from the story.
One of the most important events in the book and the movie is the battle between Iorek and the king of the polar bears. The CGI bears are so darned pretty that they just look like the charming characters used in the seasonal Coca-Cola commercials — pure, glossy white with expressive faces (although they are loud and roar fiercely). The big battle is a tamely anodyne thing, because not one single drop of blood is spilled. The impression I had was of big plush animals gumming each other, and occasionally slapping at each other with overstuffed paws, as if the leadership of the savage Panzerbjorn was settled by a pillow-fight.
So, yeah, I was disappointed. It’s an interestingly complicated story, it flies by with surprising speed, and it’s got great eye candy, but it’s reduced to fluff and chaos by trying to cram almost everything in the book into two hours. It simply doesn’t work. I can’t imagine how they could possibly cope with the two sequels, which get ever weirder and offensive to prudish religious zealots — wheeled aliens, a knife for slaying gods, gay angels, a God who is mad and decrepit, and an extremely dismal afterlife — since the first book is the one with the simplest story line and the most traditional fantasy elements, and they blew that.
I won’t quite go so far as to say that you should stay away from the movie, since it is inventive and fun to look at … but don’t go expecting any thoughtful revelations or dramatic, atheist-friendly insights. That part is treated like a well-padded pillow-fight, too.