Witch Cinema 24: The Golden Compass: Magic, Daemons and Polar Bears!
Article ID: 12259
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: December 23rd. 2007
Times Viewed: 11,216
Many avid readers of fantasy fiction have eagerly awaited this film, based on Philip Pullman's trilogy entitled His Dark Materials. Maybe you've heard that the Christian community, and in particular catholics, are up in arms about this film, because the author of the novel it's based on is an avowed atheist. The right-wing media outlets are claiming the film is part of a "stealth campaign" to sway children away from catholic practices and towards atheism, because of the author's outspoken views against organized religion. Bill Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League, was quoted as saying: "These books denigrate Christianity, thrash the Catholic Church and sell the virtues of atheism." The Catholic League has mounted a protest campaign and has issued a pamphlet entitled "The Golden Compass Unmasked."
Even though the film has watered down these themes, critics of Pullman claim its release will renew interest in his books, with Donohue predicting they "will fly off the shelves at Christmastime." Atheists and Pullman fans are also aggrieved, however; they claim the film has bowed to pressure from Christian right groups and sanitized the religious content. Pullman has been quoted as saying he wrote the books as a retort to C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, which are laden with Christian symbolism and allegory. Maybe the real problem for these nay-sayers is that large numbers of, ahem, witches appear in the story? They're in the film, too, lots of them.
Since I have not read Pullman's books, all I can do is respond to the film. (But if you want to read more on the controversy from an intelligent and humorous standpoint, you could start with this site from New York Magazine. And my response was a very positive one. This magical, thrilling, gorgeous film is a real treat, although, I am sorry to say, perhaps not suitable for younger children because of its violence and mature themes. I also have to say that some folks who saw the film when I did who had read the novels were somewhat disappointed in certain plot omissions and the ending in particular. But since this seems to be heading towards a sequel, perhaps the plot holes will be filled in to the satisfaction of fans. But for me, the story felt complete, even for being fairly complex.
It's the story of Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a young girl who lives on the campus of a college, where she lives under the guardianship of her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). His research has taken him on adventures to far-away northern lands of ice and snow, and Lyra is captivated by tales of ice bears. In this world, children have animal altar-egos called "daemons" who shift shape, speak and accompany them at all times. Lyra's daemon is a cat named Pan, who also becomes a mouse and a ferret on occasion. Similar to familiars, the daemons are constantly with the children and able to aid them in times of trouble or comfort them when they're afraid.
Lyra's uncle gives her a rare golden compass, an ancient device that tells the truth for those who can read it. One of the college's benefactors, the coldly beautiful Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), arrives and asks if she can have Lyra accompany her to the North. In reality, she is being kidnapped because of her connection to Asriel. And Dust is involved: Dust, according to some of the Church-associated characters, is a substance that appears to be related to the concept of original sin. It gathers around adults, but not children. Some in the story believe that children might be freed from the dangers of dust if their daemons are cut away from them. But others believe that dust is merely a form of consciousness, and that children lack awareness of it due to their innocence. Their daemons help keep this innocence alive. In reality, dust is some combination of awareness and experience and free will. Pullman's concept of dust as the ability to commit sin is a controversial one, but the film does not spend a lot of time on this point.
It's all a bit mysterious, but once everyone arrives in the North, Lyra finds herself under the protection of traveling gypsies, including the parents of her friend Roger, who along with some other local children, has disappeared. Rumor has it they've been taken by "Gobblers." Lyra has vowed to help rescue her friends but there are bigger matters afoot. Helped by a cowboy mercenary named Lee Scoresby (played by the wonderful Sam Elliott), Lyra and the others also enlist the help of Iorek, an ice bear warrior (voiced by the awesome Ian McKellen) who has lost his confidence and his standing among his people (well, bears) and needs a quest to feel whole again. Lyra is also helped by a witch named Serafina (played by the lovely Eva Green).
Directed by Chris Weitz, and filmed on location on England, Switzerland and Norway, with wonderfully authentic and beautiful sets, this film also offers gorgeous costumes, spectacular special effects and very strong acting. I won’t give any more of the story away except to say the highlight and climax are a very dramatic and jaw-dropping battle among ice bears. We all know how strong and ferocious polar bears are, but in anthropomorphizing the ice bears with language and codes of ethics (not to mention cool suits of armor), this film gives nobility to their brutality.
It is also true that the polar caps are slowly melting and polar bear habitats are in serious danger of not being able to support these giants of the North much longer. If you find yourself inspired to buy polar bear dolls or posters, think about spending your money on a membership in an environmental organization that is fighting to preserve wildlife habitat for polar bears. You can do that here, here, and here. If nothing else, turning this film into an opportunity for environmental activism will get the right-wing media to chatter about something apart from its non-existent anti-catholic bias. Or maybe they'll realize we're really going to see it for the witches…and the polar bears.
Location: Jamaica Plain, New York
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