''The Golden Compass'' disappoints at the box-office -- How poor performance of the Nicole Kidman fantasy could affect the ''His Dark Materials'' franchise

It was supposed to be New Line’s next great franchise — a lavish spectacle on par with the studio’s Lord of the Rings series. But last weekend The Golden Compass, an adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, opened to a wan $25.8 million. And like that, it went from potentially middle-earth-shattering to potentially embarrassing.

How did Compass wind up so far off course? Lack of a built-in audience, for one thing. Unlike 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia (which made $292 million) and the Tolkien and J.K. Rowling canons, Compass doesn’t have the kind of classic-novel cachet in the U.S. that can attract huge crowds. It also had the misfortune of following a rash of poorly received fantasy films that were released in the post-LOTR/Harry Potter frenzy. In the last year alone, Eragon, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, and Stardust flopped, and upcoming flicks such as Inkheart and The Spiderwick Chronicles could suffer too. Middling reviews added to Compass‘ woes, as did its complicated plot: Accompanied by a shape-shifting ”daemon” who is the manifestation of her soul, a girl seeks her kidnapped friend and an uncle who is obsessed with cosmic dust. (Warning: Rereading that sentence may make your head explode.) And New Line probably hurt itself by never directly addressing Compass‘ religious controversy, thereby appeasing neither Pullman’s fans nor the groups that targeted the film for a boycott.

As for what Compass‘ debut means for plans to adapt other Materials books, New Line says ”no official decisions have been made.” That may be true, but you don’t need an alethiometer to tell you it’s not looking good. The risk may simply be too great, especially since the studio is finishing a tough year in which Hairspray and Rush Hour 3 were the lone hits in a pool of duds (Love in the Time of Cholera, Rendition, Shoot ‘Em Up). Overseas, Compass grossed $ 55 million in its first four days, but that promising number won’t help New Line recoup its investment, since it had previously sold the foreign distribution rights.

The studio’s co-CEOs Michael Lynne and Robert Shaye, whose contracts are up for renewal next year, could use another surefire hit — something along the lines of, say, a return to Middle-earth. Don’t be surprised, then, if 2008 turns out to be the year New Line finally resolves its legal battle with Peter Jackson over The Hobbit.

The Golden Compass
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 114 minutes
  • Chris Weitz