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Not too long, mercifully, but a breathless, characterless, oh-dear-but-I-couldn’t-care-less experience which was a whole lot less dull than the first LotR film, and with none of the insight of the first Narnia movie – two comparisons which were bound to happen. I kept waiting for the quiet spell when characterisation just might happen, but perhaps (he said charitably) they’ve reserved that for the second movie, like they did with Luke Skywalker.
I won’t try to summarise the plot, except to say it’s vastly complex for a kid’s film, and hugely lacking in motivation for an adult movie. A young girl discovers things are not as they seem and finds herself on a quest to unravel the mysteries of spirituality, parallel universes, souls, authority and dark deeds of deception. At least she doesn’t get into a situation over a pound note; nor does hilarity ensue. But it’s pretty lame stuff, as likelihoods go.
Despite the fuss, this isn’t anti-religion. There’s nothing in it at all which suggests that Catholicism is wrong or that God belongs in a jar. Sure, the Magisterium represents the way the Catholic Church tries or wishes to rule; and pseudo-spiritual symbolism abounds. But Ms Kidman can rest easy (as she clearly already does) as appending her name to this movie won’t materially affect her chances of being hired. However, her half-hearted, lazy casual performance (is she? Isn’t she? Do we care? We’re not even tempted, not even slightly) might make a future potential employer rethink his casting attitude.
Anyway, it’s the peripherals which caused me greatest concern. Everyone has a soul, from which they mustn’t be separated. No problem. But Pullman calls these characters Daemons and then represents them mostly by cute talking fluffy bunny rabbits, chirruping birds (whistle while you work) and friendly rodents. Yes, children, demons are good and nice and innocent and you should listen to what they say, as their advice can sometimes be helpful. I harken unto alarm bells, don’t you?
And the witches turn out to be like angels, coming to the rescue in the nick of time, being beautiful and kind and eternal… why choose this name for them, which is packed with occult resonance, if it’s not his point?
Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards - superb actress, I have to admit, despite the bizarre name), the girl at the centre of the story is devious, cunning, unaccountably attached to the boys who tease her, nasty, a liar, so obviously not the niece of the utterly wasted Daniel Craig and inherits a brass Ouija Board, by which the plot is driven. Without the Metal Horoscope of the title, the extraordinary co-incidences and far-fetched story would have no chance of getting off the ground, as it would be even more laughable.
The polar bear who is the rightful heir to the throne of the Bear Kingdom is a whisky-sodden kitchen slave until Lyra consults the ouija thing and discovers where his armour is, which turns him into a pseudo-Aslan without the wisdom, kindness, wrath, power or substitutionary tendencies. (Is that all? cries pretender Ragnar, during the fight. Yes, apparently so.) There’s some brilliant, stunning CGI as he walks through the snow, and as he fights the pretender to the throne, but that bit of the story seems like an episode which is hardly relevant to the main plotline. He does get the most memorable line – ‘war is the sea in which I swim.’
And the adults are all either mysterious and likely to be evil (at best) or are out and out evil (which is probably easier to handle). But at least the casting here provides some light relief for the bored viewer, as you work out where you’ve seen them before. There’s the camp choirmaster out of the Vicar of Dibley attempting to be Darth Vader; there’s Tom Courtenay (you know, Billy Liar, classic northern working class hero) playing the southern US drawling love child of Clint Eastwood & Lando Calrissian; here’s the paedophile Pentecostal pastor out of Cracker being Capt’n Birds Eye; and of course there’s James Bond but with a beard and (in his most dramatic scene) having a shave. Obviously chaps from Tolkein appear from time to time, with Christopher Lee getting one or two lines, and Ian McKellen voicing the boozy bear. Ten thousand great actors populate this movies, but every one of them has nothing to do.
Is it derivitive? Talking animals, children being smarter/nicer/ braver than adults, orphaned kids hiding in wardrobes… seen it all before in Narnia, which Pullman reportedly despises for having a Christian message. Isn’t his simply an anti-Narnia allegory? And then there’s more over-explored stuff like parallel universes (nearly all cheap sci-fi), importance of dust (Dune), supernatural cavalry (LotR)… ho hum. There’s nothing much that’s new under the Northern Lights.
But I couldn’t help noticing at one point in the film there was a girl on a boat, trying to find a kid called Roger. Is it me, or have we been here before?