It's what I get, I suppose, for reading Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass before seeing Chris Weitz's film version. After telling everyone I've seen in the last week how absolutely great the book is, how it is a must-read for anyone who likes fantasy books, after how happy the book made me, I was bound to be disappointed in the movie.
And, surprise, surprise, The Golden Compass just did not measure up. I think, though, that this is not a case of the novel simply being too rich or detailed or interior for film, but just bad storytelling. Instead of working at creating powerful moments or important relationships, The Golden Compass is too busy making sure we understand the terms of the world the movie lives in. The book is almost all exposition, too, so I don't understand why the movie decided it needed to work in another way. The book, in fact, starts with us knowing absolutely nothing, and then learning what we learn about the world of the novel as we go along. Things are explained when they need to be explained and never before. The entire book, actually, is more an unfolding of things we don't know than a series of events. It's action-packed, of course, but the narrative works because we figure things out as we go along. The movie of The Golden Compass, however, turns out to be a lot like the film of another book I love, A Home at the End of the World: just a series of plot points strung together. So the movie hits all of the points in the plot, sure, but none of the events really has any power because we don't really care about any of the characters.
Sam Elliott was cool in the movie, and watching the polar bears fight was fun, but the movie didn't really get off the ground until we met Iorek Byrnison and by that time I had already checked out.