Chris Weitz was the first, and the third, director for the film. You could say it was a troubled production. The novel was controversial enough, and both fans and religious groups gnashed their teeth at how it was being adapted. Add to that the technical issues involved in realising the fantasy world, the studio expectations after the success of genre peer THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and a myriad of smaller issues, and the fundamental mess and hollowness of the film become easier to understand. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the film is that it lacks an ending. One was shot, but controversy and resistance and mumblings of ‘saving it to start the sequel’ saw it removed from the film (amusingly, some footage was preserved in tie-in video game adaptions), giving the whole affair a bizarrely flat non-conclusion.
That wasn’t the only flat thing about the adaption. While some of the cast sparkle – Sam Elliot is magical, and Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman gleefully embody their characters -, the inexperience of the child actors is evident. Too much worldbuilding is foisted onto the audience in a way that isn’t only clunky, but breaks the actual operation of the story being adapted. Without the natural hooks of mystery, things progress dully. There is too much context. There are dozens of changes indicative of the general reductive, trope-ridden approach to the story (the general depiction of the Catholic Church stand-in, the tinkerer with a certain wine), and dozens of breaks in logic even considering the film in a vacuum. Why does Asriel freak out about Lyra knowing about a topic he just performed a lecture on in her presence? Why does he announce the location of a place he arrives to, to absolutely nobody, when he and his animal companion already know the name of it anyway?
There are some workable adaptional changes. Combining the characters of Billy and Tony makes sense, and making the Master of Jordan obsessed with witches is kind of a logical workaround to get more worldbuilding dolled out upfront. The visualisations of Lyra intuiting ‘the truth’ work well enough. The wonder of the cities and settings depicted generally works. The pacing is so frenetic that there’s never any time to really appreciate any of that though. Divorcing the story from the more-or-less singular perspective of Lyra, by frontloading scenes of children in camps (giving antagonistic games away too quickly), or randomly having Derek Jaxobi and Christopher Lee make evil monologues about doing evil, these things make the story feel smaller in confining it to a very ridden and well-trod kind of fantasy ground.
It’s easiest to talk about the film in relation to the book it’s adapting, as to talk about it on its own terms requires treating it as the fairly incoherent, rushed, tepid affair it is in isolation. It’s a failure, certainly, but not without its merits. There’s joy to seeing some of this fantasy story visually realised, and some of the cast do their duties admirably. But the film is a footnote for good reason. Two photograms, and a talking bear.