Saturday, December 1, 2007

Two Kiddie Movies

A week or so back, I saw the new Disney film Enchanted, starring Amy Adams as a fairytale/cartoon princess who, thanks to a wicked hag, finds herself in live-action "reality" in present-day New York City. It's an adorable, family-friendly comedy with a (more or less) talking chipmunk, a handsome prince who isn't very bright, a single-Dad divorce lawyer who becomes his romantic rival, Susan Sarandon cast totally against type (yeah, right) as the wicked witch-queen, several sparkling song-and-dance numbers (including one that features the talents of synchronized vermin), and a satisfying character arch in which the almost insufferably perky princess becomes so acclimated to "reality" that, when her knight in shining armor finally shows up, her confusion is really touching. The turning point, I believe, is when the prince hands her a Disneyesque musical cue and she drops it.

The cast is quite effective, and girl-power buffs should probably enjoy this movie - especially the ones that secretly harbor a frilly, taffeta dress in their closet. Fairy tale logic is confronted with the unromantic logic of the modern metro area and its politics, sexual and otherwise. The princess goes, armed with a sword, to save her man from a monster. And everyone lives happily ever after. Sarandon and Adams are joined by James Marsden (he of the face that can cut glass), Patrick Dempsey (Dr. McSomething or other, I can't keep the characters in Gray's Anatomy straight), Timothy Spall (veteran of both Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events), and Idina Menzel (late of Rent).

Tonight, I went to an altogether different kids' movie...a grown-up one. It was a sneak preview of The Golden Compass. This is a film based on the first book, originally titled The Northern Lights, of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The word "sneak" probably doesn't apply, since I found out about it on the internet, and so did enough other people that I ended up standing in line for half an hour. I seriously questioned whether this was worth it, since my review of His Dark Materials was one of the most strongly-worded - I should say almost the only - predominantly negative review I ever wrote for The Book Trolley. That review stirred some memorable controversy, to judge by the positive and negative feedback I received for a long time afterward.

I had little confidence that I would enjoy this movie. But I was swayed to stay by three things: (1) fortifying myself with a free large popcorn and drink, courtesy of a coupon from the cinema franchise; (2) my recollection that the first book of the trilogy was actually quite good, only the ones that followed it didn't live up to its promise; and (3) the consoling realization that, as a fat stupid jerk, I would enjoy writing a bitchy review almost as much as a positive one.

As it turns out, it was an exceptional movie, with a magnificent cast and dazzling visuals to go with the exciting and fascinating storyline. Only two dark clouds overshadowed my enjoyment: my foreknowledge of what happens next, and the crappy song that accompanied the end titles.

In The Golden Compass, we find ourselves in a strange, parallel world where people's souls take visible form as talking, animal-like "daemons" that go with them everywhere. In this world, the Magisterium - something like the Spanish Inquisition with an infusion of Calvinist theology - rules most people with an iron hand. There are some free spirits and places of refuge for them - the Gyptians, a race of Gypsy-like boat people; the long-lived flying witches; and the scholars at Oxford University who have raised Lyra Belacqua from a baby.

Lyra herself is quite a free spirit, notwithstanding the daemon named Pen that can take the form of various animals according to its mood (adults' daemons are locked into one form from puberty onward). But Lyra's fun is interrupted early in the movie. It starts with a visit from her "Uncle" Asrael, who is defying the Magisterium in his research into the amazing "dust" that connects Lyra's world to countless parallel worlds. Then Lyra is swept away by the glamorous Mrs. Coulter, who turns out to be a monstrously cruel agent of the Magisterium and a key member of a conspiracy to perform a dastardly "operation" to separate children from their daemons. Upon escaping from Mrs. Coulter, Lyra follows a trail of adventure clear to the North Pole, encountering armored bears, merciless soldiers, quirky friends, and thrilling dangers.

The film has fierce battles, explosive escapes, sinister villains, gorgeous scenery, and moments of extreme creepiness and suspense. It has a gorgeous and magical gadget, a beautiful and inspiring friendship, a child of astonishing bravery, and a cast that includes Daniel Craig (late 007), Nicole Kidman, Derek Jacobi, Sam Elliott, Tom Courtenay, and the precocious Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. Christopher Lee also puts in an absurdly brief appearance, considering the high billing he gets. Actors whose faces I recognized but couldn't put names to included Simon McBurney (the inquisitor-type who tries to poison Lord Asrael at the beginning of the movie), Jack Shepherd (the master of Lyra's college), Casino Royale's Eva Green (the witch Serafina Pekkala), and Jim Carter (the Gyptian king). Among the actors whose talents you may recognize in the voices of various daemons and bears are Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Freddie Highmore.

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