Entry for December 12, 2007: Dogs, fantasy flicks, and holidays

On Saturday, 8 December 2007, Janice's parents and our niece Amanda L. came to Boston for the Bay Colony Dog Show. We enjoyed watching the agility trials (an obstacle course also testing obedience) and walking around the breed competitions and various vendors. It was 9-year-old Amanda's first dog show, and we ran into Brian W. & Beth S.

We also visited the Animal Rescue League shelter in Dedham, Massachusetts, where Janice volunteers on most Sunday mornings. After that, we had an early dinner at Bertucci's (Janice and I had eaten at the Fuji Japanese steakhouse in Needham on her birthday itself.) We'll be at a charity equestrian event at Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston this coming Saturday.

On Sunday, after the usual shelter/City of Heroes morning activities, Janice and I met Beruk A., Thomas K.Y., Brian & Beth, and Sara F. & Josh C. at the AMC Framingham 16 for The Golden Compass. A few of us had read the fantasy novel on which the movie was based, and none of us was overly concerned with the Catholic League's latest protests against such godless entertainment.

In one parallel world, a young girl named Lyra Belacqua is given the last altheometer (the divination device in the film's title) and must find the truth while trying to help her friends, including a shapeshifting daemon or familiar, a street urchin, some "Gyptians" (Gypsies), a witch, a gunslinging aeronaut, and an ursine warrior. However, the mysterious research of Lord Asriel into a cosmic substance called "Dust" and the evil machinations of the Magisterium (the reason the Church is upset), led by the icy Marisa Coulter, bring danger to Lyra, her friends, and their entire world.

I thought the acting in Golden Compass was good, with young newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as a bright Lyra, and Casino Royale's Daniel Craig and Eva Green as Lord Asriel and witch Serafina, respectively. Nicole Kidman is appropriately chilly as Marisa Coulter (no relation to Ann?), and the cameos and voices of various animals include Lord of the Rings' Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, Ian McShane, and Kathy Bates. Sam Eliot plays his usual charming cowboy as Lee Scoresby. I also thought the computer-animated animals and steampunk/magitech vehicles were well-realized.

However, as my friends and some critics have noted, the writing and direction could have been better, with some choppy exposition in the beginning and an emphasis on a few spectacular battle scenes later in the movie. The truncated ending raised the specter of the inevitable sequel. Also, some of the flaws are in the source material –Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, which tends to favor philosophical discussion over an original setting or well-rounded motivations. I'd give Golden Compass about a 7 out of 10.

There was a similar trend after Conan: the Barbarian film in the early 1980s, as many fantasy flicks tried to duplicate its success but fell short more often than not. While I have some nostalgia for movies such as Beastmaster, Krull, and Legend, they had weak scripts, acting, and special effects. As Brian pointed out, even Willow, which tried to be epic, tried too hard to get the mythical ingredients right but failed to ignite audiences' imaginations.

In the wake of the Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter movie adaptations of the past decade, it's no surprise that risk-averse Hollywood studios would jump on the fantasy bandwagon, much as it has with comic book superheroes and animation. Unfortunately, most of the resulting movies will be subpar, but a few will be of interest.

Just this year, Bridge to Terabithia, The Seeker: the Dark is Rising, and Stardust were underwhelming in terms of box office and reviews; we'll see how Spiderwick Chronicles and Inkheart do. Like its science fiction and horror brethren, multimedia fantasy franchises tend to drag on in slavish imitation of archetypal or truly creative works of art.

On the other hand, films such as last year's Pan's Labyrinth show that people can revisit themes from fairy tales and legends and make them fresh and interesting to adults. It was also nice to get together with people outside of the usual D&D3.5 "Vanished Lands: the Broken Chains" and City of Heroes games.

I thought that Journeyman's latest episode was well-done and timely, since my newsroom's annual year-end party is today. In the meantime, have a Happy Hanukkah and may all your holidays be happy!