Golden Compass" is emblematic of the movie itself: aesthetically lush but ultimately cold to the touch.
This adaptation of the first novel in British writer Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy has some fanciful moments but never achieves the sense of awe-inspiring wonder of the "Lord of the Rings" films, to which comparisons will be inevitable. It's also probably too scary for a lot of kids, with its themes of totalitarianism and mind control; adults, meanwhile, may find it hard to take seriously, despite how seriously it takes itself.
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Writer-director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") takes on the biggest project of his life with this CGI-filled spectacle, which he also had to cram with tons of exposition to set up a potential series. The visual highlight is supposed to be the battle between two powerful, armored polar bears, voiced with ire and gravitas by Ian McKellen and Ian McShane; since this is the film's signature sequence and we know it's coming, much of "The Golden Compass" feels like a waiting game until it arrives.
But the whole thing is a bit of a drag, even given the sprightly energy of our heroine, 12-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua, played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards.
2Lyra lives as a ward of the prestigious Jordan College and enjoys spending her afternoons prowling about, looking for trouble with best pal Roger (Ben Walker). Then one day she receives from the headmaster the last remaining golden compass, a device that provides the true answer to any question. She must use it to find other children who've been abducted by a government body that wants to rid them of free will. (It's supposed to make them happier and promote peace.)
She gets her chance once she meets Kidman's Marisa Coulter, the world traveler with obviously nefarious plans who befriends Lyra and whisks her away in a zeppelin-style flying machine to the snowy north. With her icy features, Kidman oozes old-school Hollywood glamour, and her entrance in a glittering, form-fitting gold gown is a stunner.
Also along for the ride is Lyra's animal companion Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), her own personal "daemon," which everyone has. It's a furry manifestation of a human being's soul, which feels all the same pains and joys and thinks the same thoughts. Pan, as he's known, can shift from appearing as a tiny mouse when he's frightened to a big, mean kitty when provoked; Mrs. Coulter, meanwhile, has an impish, monkey-looking thing, which she likes to slap around. (This probably wasn't supposed to be funny, but it is.)
Once she escapes the wicked Coulter's clutches, Lyra finds an eclectic mix of allies in a traveling band known as the Gyptians, Texas aviator Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott, who could do this in his sleep), the good witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) and, of course, McKellen's enormous and misunderstood bear, Iorek Byrnison. Yes, it's all as complicated as it sounds.
Someone we don't see enough of, though, is Daniel Craig as Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel. Craig is woefully underused as an explorer and scientist who believes there's some sort of dust floating around that connects us to parallel universe, but by investigating this discovery, he puts himself in danger. (One scene in which he goes galavanting about in the rugged ice and snow is reminiscent of the kind of adventure Craig would have as James Bond. It only serves as a glaring reminder that he's capable of so much more.)
Oh yes, and about that tizzy that Pullman's writings are anti-Christian, and that "The Golden Compass" foists atheism on malleable, unsuspecting children. Any reference to religion is totally vague and up for interpretation. The evil body trying to manipulate young minds isn't any specific church but rather the broadly imposing Magesterium.
Tickle Me Elmo is more subversive.
"The Golden Compass," a New Line Cinema release, is rated
PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence. Running time: 114 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
By Christy Lemire