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The Golden Compass

Tuesday December 18, 2007 in recent cinema | children

As a fan of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy I was looking forward to The Golden Compass, the film of the first instalment Northern Lights. After seeing it, I wasn’t disappointed or let down, but I wasn’t excited either. It’s something of a Goldilocks film, just okay, and I’m not sure if this makes The Golden Compass good, acceptable or only mediocre.

The Golden Compass

It was my fantasy film expectations that were eventually satisfied more than my literary ones. The special effects were very good, especially the cinematic realisation of Pullman’s daemons, where the people in his alternative world are accompanied by the animal embodiment of their souls. Like the novels, what at first comes across as weird and unsettling is in fact very easy to get used to. By the end of the film you will be looking for the daemon of every new character you see, and judging that very character by their daemon. You will be wary of the ones with dogs or wolves, suspicious of the man with a grasshopper, respectful for Lord Asriel’s leopard and fearful of Mrs Coulter’s monkey.

Nicole Kidman brought life to the Mrs Coulter, who has already lived in my imagination for a long time. From the moment we see her I knew she was going to get the characterisation right, both for me and and for anybody who hadn’t read the books. Kidman let you know right away that Mrs Coulter was one to watch out for. In the cinema, my daughter leant over to me and whispered “she’s bad, isn’t she?” and The Golden Compass does exceed with its choice of cast. There’s the usual company of skilled British thesps, including the excellent Tom Courtenay, Jim Carter and Derek Jacobi. Even Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, who you would think are growing bored with this sort of thing, make their contribution. But its the lesser knowns who are good too such as Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. With a bad Lyra this would have been nothing more than a Christmas turkey.

What is strange about The Golden Compass is its confidence that today’s cinema audience can expect their entertainment to be episodic. Weaned on Tolkein and Harry Potter, they consume their films in instalments and, being the first of three, this opening to The Dark Materials goes nowhere. We are literally left up in the air. What’s even stranger is the casting of Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Something of cinema’s golden boy since Casino Royale (but a very fine actor nevertheless), you would expect him to have made more than the couple of the brief appearances he makes. No more than a days work for Mr Craig, who still manages, strangely, to have a shave halfway through the film. Was there a continuity problem, or will his loss of beard be explained in the next film?

The Golden Compass has been accused of toning down its take on theology, and coming to it straight from The God Delusion I was interested in seeing what truth there was in this. The answer is that I really don’t think there’s a place for such intellectual and philosophical debate in a family film, and anyway – it’s all there for you to read into. The Magesterium and authority, those who question it and are themselves questioned when they decide to seek out the real truth. Science and religion, those old chestnuts. I’m glad this film didn’t try to spell out any message too much. I was far too busy cowering from Nicole Kidman.

As I’ve said, this could have been more polished and accomplished but it could also have been far, far worse. It’s a film that would have been difficult to imagine pre Lord of the Rings, but it’s also a film that takes this genre (literary fantasy?) and pushes it a touch further forward in terms of visual spectacle. I just hope it’s successful enough to allow the next two books in the trilogy to be filmed, otherwise it will remain an inconsequential oddity. And by the way, don’t rush out of the cinema at the end and stick around for Lyra, the rather excellent theme song from Kate Bush.

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Death by Chocolate

Friday September 21, 2007 in books read 2007 | children

Even though it was thirty-odd years ago, I still have vivid memories of my teacher at junior school reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the class. In all the intervening years I’ve never read the book myself, but was recently tempted to buy a copy for my daughter when I saw that the edition with illustrations by Quentin Blake was back in the shops.

Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Although Dahl’s books have lasted well (Charlie was published in 1964), and will no doubt continue to last for longer still, I have always thought that he belonged in an older, simpler world. This is possibly something to do with memories of him on Saturday morning television, grumpily obliging to review the latest pop releases. We also have a couple of audio books at home – read by Dahl himself – and his accent and tone of voice belongs in an older time, confidently using words like ‘perambulator’ without fear of being queried.

Some of Dahl’s ideas, and sources for humour, could be questioned by today’s most politically correct. He’s fond of grotesques, especially fat people, and there are many in Charlie. For Dahl, the overweight are overindulged and spoilt; where the half-starved and poor (the Bucket family) are good and noble. There’s something of this attitude or approach surviving in Harry Potter I think; Rowling paints the Dursley’s as fat, overindulged and ugly, with the poor and undernourished Harry surviving in the shadows.

Dahl also likes to push things to the extreme; Grandpa Joe isn’t just old, at ninety six he’s positively ancient, as are the other three grandparents he shares a bed with. When Charlie’s father loses his job in the toothpaste factory the family are instantly plunged into a Dickensian nightmare of poverty, complete with a thick blanket of snow on the ground. Charlie has to leave the house for school extra early, walking slowly to conserve his draining energy.

Then there are the Oompa Loompas, rescued by the eccentric and positively sinister Mr Wonka from the jungle – every man, woman and child – to gladly work in his factory. There’s something slightly unsettling about the presence of Oompa Loompas in Wonkaland, but the book was written in 1964 so it’s foolish to look into it with a too discerning eye.

My daughter loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – possibly more so than any other book she’s been exposed to – because Dahl is such a skilled storyteller. At times he’s up there with Dickens (and perhaps Rowling is up there with them both too). The early chapters are cleverly paced and very exciting, even when a child knows the outcome. His characterisation of Wonka, just the other side of sanity, is perfectly measured and I guess – pc or not – the grotesques get their just desserts. After all, it’s just a fun story and nobody can doubt the power of the man’s imagination. There are parts that made me laugh out loud, such as Wonkas’s mad inventions, including the square sweets that look round. Yes, square sweets that look round.

Some of the more obvious warnings in this book now more firmly belong to my parents’ generation, or Dahl’s. He was grumpy on Saturday morning television probably because he he was a book lover and he hated television; who can blame him for that? At least I get this impression by the Oompa Loompa’s reaction to the fate of Mike Teavee:

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.

And a word about Quentin Blake – his drawings are fantastic, the acid test being my daughter asking “is there a drawing?” for every scene that suggests an accompanying illustration. Blake gets it right every time.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Monday July 30, 2007 in books read 2007 | children

‘We thought you knew what you were doing!’ shouted Ron, standing up; and his words pierced Harry like scalding knives. ‘We thought Dumbledore had told you what to do, we thought you had a real plan!’

Well I’m afraid it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a slow burner indeed. Following a fantastic and dark opening, the novel takes its time to work its way to the Harry Potter conclusion. Rowling provides the final missing pieces of the jigsaw, with revelations revealing a deeper complexity to many characters, often confusing the allegiances of the reader as to who really are the good and the bad guys.

At times I found The Deathly Hallows long winded, but there are some excellent touches throughout – Rita Skeeter’s damning cash-in biography of Dumbledore is very witty, Harry revisiting his childhood home for the first time is equally tense, and Rowling explores the new adulthood of her characters very thoughtfully. And without revealing too much of the plot, you’ve probably guessed that this final instalment of the series finds the wizard world in chaos; following Dumbledore’s death the Ministry of Magic is largely in the hands of The Death Eaters with Harry and his pals in mortal danger as they race to defeat Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows carries a lot of baggage; namely the whole Potter-wizards-Voldemort-Hogwarts mythology and backstory that I fully admit I had difficulty remembering. How come? Well, I read the first four Harry Potter books back to back in 2002 and have subsequently read the last three when they came out every other year. The back-to-back experience is certainly the best for understanding and enjoying the mythology and cronology; long intervals between instalments has left me struggling and The Deathly Hallows is full of references that just left me and my poor memory puzzled. I’ve raised this with die-hard Potter fans, but all I’ve had in response is a “hmmm…”, and I’ve left the room before they’ve had time to reach for their wand.

But fully grasp it all or not, there’s always one or two moments in a Potter book that make it worth reading; the giant spiders, Harry’s lessons with Lupin, the death of Sirius and the trips into the Pensieve with Dumbledore spring to mind although I am sure there are many more (usually anything involving Professor McGonagall, criminally underused in part seven). In the Deathly Hallows its the Pensieve again that provides some of the best written passages, with the final few chapters being the best that Rowling has ever written. In particular the chapter called Kings Cross is well worth waiting for, so brilliantly well written and touching.

So am I glad it’s all over? In many ways yes. There is still plenty of the Potter charm in evidence in The Deathy Hallows, I confess that the final pages brought a tear to my eye, but seven instalments is more than enough. Although, the thing is, my daughter has just reached the age where she’s discovering Harry Potter, so I’m just about to experience it all again.

If there’s anyone out there who’s bought the book and hasn’t read it yet take a tip from me: don’t indulge in the Potter speed reading and take your time over it – after all it is the last one. Go on, spoil yourself…

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Bridge to Terabithia

Tuesday May 29, 2007 in recent cinema | children

For our Bank Holiday film treat, my daughter asked if we could see Bridge to Terabithia. I agreed, although I wasn’t expecting great things from this film, and was ushered into the cinema imagining a poor rehash of The Chronicles of Narnia. After the titles had rolled I realised we were in for something different. The trailers and posters had wildly misrepresented the film; no abuse of CGI, no over egging of the Fantasy pudding and no British actors in mildly villainous roles. Bridge to Terabithia is a quite brilliant children’s film that doesn’t simply rely on technical wizardry and British thesps hamming it up.

This is an adaptation of Katherine Paterson book, where Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) is a quiet schoolkid who befriends new girl Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb). While only child Leslie’s parents are dreamy authors, Jesse has three sisters and his parents are struggling with their debts. His father (played by Robert Patrick – still as creepy as he was in Terminator II) berates his son, a gifted artist, for dwelling too long in imaginary worlds and not gaining a foothold on reality. Indeed, Jesse and Leslie do make a fine pair, escaping from the harsh real world of classroom anguish and school bullies to their imaginary world of Terabithia, just a short rope swing across a backyard river.

Bridge to Terabithia keeps its special effects in check, relying instead on the two excellent leads. It’s a very well paced and thoughtful film. There’s also one of the most shocking twists I’ve ever encountered in a children’s film. No spoilers here – but be warned. This is a film that might bore the under-eights, especially if they’re expecting their fill of imaginary creatures and fantasy. But my daughter, thinking we were in for another Narnia, really enjoyed it. Something different from the usual Multiplex fare and well worth seeing.

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