The Golden Compass opens in just three short days, and while it’s one of the most hyped movies of the holiday season, it’s tough to predict how it will fare financially. The fantasy epic, which stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, has been plagued with controversy from the beginning of its production, but whether the controversy will help or hurt the film has yet to be seen. I’m getting the sense that The Golden Compass could be 2007’s King Kong, a film that underperformed after analysts way overhyped it. For every good thing that The Golden Compass has going for it, it seems to have other forces going against it.
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On the one hand, it’s an adaptation of a fantasically popular book by Philip Pullman, and part of the acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy. On the other hand, that book series is only twelve years old, and it doesn’t have the classic grandeur of The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings, which parents and children have read. The adaptation Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events suffered from this, and it finished with a disappointing $118 million. Because it’s not yet a classic, it is doubtful that The Golden Compass will pull in families like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe did in December 2005. Exacerbating this problem, it doesn’t help that the film carries a not-so-family-friendly PG-13 rating.
Of course, the big obstacle that The Golden Compass faces is its outright opposition with the Catholic Church, which made its official declaration that it is vehemently against the film. Philip Pullman, the author of the books on which the movie is based, is an outspoken, C.S. Lewis-hating atheist. He has publicly said: “It is my goal to go after Christianity. I want God to be dead in my works. I want to undermine Christianity.” Harsh words, right? In his books, Pullman villainizes the Catholic Church (called the Magisterium). The Magisterium is a tyrannical, corrupt, downright evil institution, which essentially controls the world. The protagonists of the story ultimately take down the church, and in the final installment of the series, the children kill God. Pullman’s hatred of the Catholic Church is about as subtle as a nuclear bomb, and though Director Chris Weitz insists that the film tones down these anti-Christian themes, the controversy surrounding the film is still enormous.
Normally, controversy is free publicity for a film, and it propels the film to success. The Passion of the Christ earned $373 million domestically because of it, Borat pulled in $128 million, and Fahrenheit 9/11 became the highest grossing documentary of all time with $119 million. However, all of these films were rated R, and targeted toward adult audiences, while The Golden Compass is being marketed as a family affair. It’s no secret that families flock to what they know is safe, wholesome entertainment (i.e. Enchanted, Narnia, Ratatouille, etc.), and New Line is taking a big risk by challenging the traditional views of middle American families. In a predominantly Christian country, many parents simply won’t allow their kids to see a film that undermines their religion. In this case, I think controversy will actually hurt The Golden Compass‘ box office, rather than augmenting it.
Finally, the buzz around this movie among movie buffs is nearly deafening, and many are expecting the film to be THE breakout film of the winter season, and New Line is hoping it can launch a new successful fantasy trilogy, just like it did with Lord of the Rings. However, with my above analysis and underwhelming early reviews, I don’t think The Golden Compass will be nearly as big as some are predicting.
That’s not to say it will flop- it’s got this weekend in the bag, which is good because Nicole Kidman needs a hit so badly. But how big will it be? Check back on Friday for my Weekend Preview.