With spoilers; also probably some unjustified harshness, because I reread the book recently and it's a hard standard to match. First, in prose:
A fascinating, gorgeous, well-meant waste. I'm not objecting to the removal of references to the church here -- and I mean really, for all the filmmakers' protestations about how it's no longer the church, if you have men in soutanes and bad hair discussing heresy and free will and "the Authority," you're clearly taking aim at something. What I'm objecting to is the muddling of Pullman's wonderful cut-glass storytelling by a writer-director who simply wasn't capable of translating it into cinematic form: Chris Weitz.
He got all the visuals right, the bears and the actors, the daemons and dirigibles. It's a glorious-looking film, as the book deserves. But from the two-minute opening sequence where all the mysteries and wonders of the book are thuddingly defined for the viewer, everything is spelled out, given away, black-and-white. There are multiple universes besides this one. Mrs. Coulter? Pretty but evil. The Magisterium? Despite the presence of Derek Jacobi, even more evil. Where the mystery of daemons and the threat of Gobblers once drew the reader on, now it's all "Daemons are your soul. Don't touch them!" "Hey, Lyra, someone's stealing kids!" "Gee, Roger, I hope they don't get you!" Et cetera, et cetera.
To be fair to Mr. Weitz, this was probably a damn near impossible book to adapt, given all the information packed into the narrative, and I can practically hear the studio executives at story conferences saying, "I really don't get this stuff about dust; audiences need to have a clear villain to root against; and hey, Daniel Craig is James Bond, remember -- could we have another action sequence?" And Mr. Weitz does communicate the majority of the information effectively; the dialogue usually wasn't that egregious, and while he moved a bunch of stuff around from the book, most of it works okay. (I actually liked the way he used the revelation of Lyra's parentage to show Mrs. Coulter's continuing manipulations.)
The thing is, though, while we get the facts, we don't feel them; we get the information, but not the emotional texture that makes it matter. Mrs. Coulter enters in a shimmer of gold and says one nice thing to Lyra, and instantly Lyra agrees to leave her beloved Oxford to go to the north with her. That should have been a longer and more intimate scene between the two actresses, establishing all of Mrs. Coulter's seductiveness and Lyra's wide-eyed susceptibility to it, but no, we've got to get on to the next thing. And thus when Mrs. Coulter turns out evil, it doesn't shock with betrayal or surprise -- we barely know her, after all, and Nicole Kidman is always such an ice queen anyway. . . .
The cinematography could have solved part of this problem: Shoot Lyra and Mrs. Coulter with their heads bent close together in the same frame, and their visual joining makes up for the lack of verbal connection. To point out the obvious, this is actually preferable in film -- it's what good movies do. But the unimaginative lensing by Henry Braham only compounds the textural weakness of the screenplay, as nearly every conversation is presented in boring, close-up shot/reverse-shot, stuff I recognized (literally) from Film History 101. (The conspiracy between Lyra and Ragnur Sturlusson (aka Iofur Raknison) was a welcome exception.) And the film seems to have been edited to make it as short as possible, except for shots involving the bears, so scenes get cut off before reaching any point of emotional closure. The result feels rushed and nervous, not suspenseful and authoritative -- Hitchcock remade by, well, Chris Weitz.
And the ending. Oh, the ending. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but cliches. On the one hand, I'm glad they didn't try the real ending, because they probably couldn't have done it right; on the other, the sheer guts required to attempt it would have covered over a multitude of sins, and given the story a powerful kick of energy, purpose, and rage heading into what hopefully will be movie #2.
Yes, hopefully -- because such is the pleasure of seeing a talking armored bear on screen, that I would pay to see it again in a second film. But to sum up this film, two limericks I wrote this morning:
There once was a young girl named Lyra
Whose story made me say "Oh my-ra!"
But on the screen
'Twas just scene after scene,
Till I'd consign the film to the pyre-a.
Oh, what should fans do with this show?
If we want to see "Knife," we must go;
But if they make another --
Please, not a Weitz brother!
Find someone who'll make true Dust flow.