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Why didn’t The Golden Compass movie work?

We live in an age of franchises. This year alone brings no fewer than four movies and two new television shows based on Marvel superheroes, as well as the third new Star Wars movie in as many years. The hunger for franchises is so deep, even unconnected properties like old Universal monster movies were being hastily stitched together in hopes of kickstarting a new cinematic universe. (It didn’t.) It’s interesting, then, to look back at franchises that didn’t materialize — such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book trilogy (consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). As we approach the 10th anniversary of New Line’s The Golden Compass film, which coincidentally matches up with Philip Pullman launching a new companion series to His Dark Materials, it’s worth asking: Why didn’t this dark and principled fantasy saga become pop culture’s next big franchise?

On paper, the cast seems almost perfectly suited to their roles. Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, and Eva Green seem like the literal living embodiments of the Arctic explorer Lord Asriel, the enigmatic manipulator Mrs. Coulter, and the witch queen Serafina Pekkala. Dakota Blue Richards made her debut in the film as protagonist (and daughter of Asriel and Coulter) Lyra Belacqua, and capably captures Lyra’s imaginative wit. But after that, things start to fall off. Casting Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby is a little too on-the-nose, taking the Texan aeronaut so far into the banalest Texas stereotypes that he never feels like a real character. Worse than that, Ian McKellen is a strange fit for the armored polar bear Iorek Byrnison. McKellen was actually recast in the role by New Line against Chris Weitz’s wishes (the director had originally cast British theater actor Nonso Anozie), and you see the studio straining for The Golden Compass

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