Based on the best-selling 1995 novel by Philip Pullmanthe first in his acclaimed "His Dark Materials" trilogy"The Golden Compass" is an auspicious and grandiose entertainment, a mesmeric epic fantasy that is indeed visionary enough to favorably stack up against 2001's inaugural "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
." Big-budget (reportedly costing over $200-million) but not overblown, the film is a 114-minute slice of stunning eye candy that feels like it's less than an hour in length. As with Peter Jackson's J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations, however, the key to the overwhelming success of "The Golden Compass" is the humanistic (and, in this particular case, humanely animalistic) story at the forefront, the sensational visual effects working to serve the tale being told rather than the other way around.
For viewers not already familiar with the source material, writer-director Chris Weitz (2002's "About a Boy
") does a sterling job of catching the uninitiated up to speed right at the onset. Set in a world reminiscent of our own but slightly differenta place where every person is accompanied through life by a dæmon, an animal manifestation of their conscience and soulthe plucky, serious-minded Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) has lived her short twelve years primarily on the grounds of Oxford's Jordan College. After overhearing her explorer uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) make mention of mysterious particles called Dust that he is about to head into the snowy North to find against the wishes of the all-powerful Magisterium, Lyra is entrusted to keep safe the last-known remaining alethiometer, a powerful device that can answer any question asked of it.
Enter the appearance of the headstrong Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) at the college, who promptly sweeps Lyra away and makes her her apprentice. When Lyra discovers that her friend, Roger (Ben Walker), has been the latest in a long line of children being snatched up by the dangerous and possibly deadly "General Oblation Board"a tyrannical organization that the increasingly icy Mrs. Coulter is suspected of being in cahoots withLyra runs away and, along with a tribe of Gyptian families who have also had many of their children kidnapped by the "Gobblers," heads for the North. Guided by an exiled armored bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) who is ready to serve and protect once more, Lyra's ultimate destination is the Magisterium's "experimental station" where Roger and the other missing kids are being held, located in the frozen wastelands of Svalbard.
Reading any synopsis of "The Golden Compass" does not do the film justice. Whittled down to a few sentences, the plot threatens to sound convoluted and even silly. Watching it, the storytelling is clean, concise (when it isn't intentionally being sketchy or subtly suggestive) and intoxicating, while the images, some purely fantastical and others portraying a bold mix of the WWI era with futuristic production designs and inventions, are vivid and enrapturing. The pacing, up against the requirement for a lot of information to be covered in less than two hours, is fairly seamless and on-target, the movie's forward motion never seeming to dawdle or lose sight of the bigger picture.
One of the great pleasures of "The Golden Compass" is drinking in the innovative world that author Philip Pullman masterminded in his prose and director Chris Weitz has brought to life for the screen. Simply put, it is thoroughly immersive and genuinely wondrous, a place where one's imagination and senses can run wild and where every viewer can warmly ponder what it would be like to forever be paired up with a dæmon of his or her own. Lyra's relationship with her dæmon, a shape-shifter named Pantalaimon (comfortingly voiced by Freddie Highmore) who, like all creatures of the pre-adolescent set, has yet to settle into his final form, is very much the heart of the film. Tied cosmically to their host, human and dæmon only live as long as the other does; when one gets hurt, it, too, hurts the other. Because of this, Lyra and Pantalaimon are not only literal soul mates, but also simultaneously vulnerable best friends whose love is unconditional and poignant.
Lyra's bond with Iorek, a gruff but devoted armored bear who joins her on her courageous quest, is also an unforgettable relationship that builds economically over a space of just a few sequences. Iorek, whose rightful place as king of the ice bears was overtaken by one Ragnar Sturlusson (voiced by Ian McShane), has given up his life's work as a warrior until Lyra inspires him to return to what he was meant to do. His fierce loyalty to this child in need and the sneaky way in which they both trick Ragnar to agree to singularly fight Iorek for the throne are just two aspects that grow and enrich their depicted unity. The effects work on Iorek, an entirely computer-generated character, along with the regal-voiced performance from Ian McKellen (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand
"), are top-notch. The same can be said about the complex handling of the dæmons, brought to wholly convincing fruition.
Nicole Kidman (2007's "Margot at the Wedding
") is nasty yet not without hints of conscientious humanity as the demanding and frequently deceptive Mrs. Coulter, a woman hiding more than she lets on. A scene where she smacks her monkey dæmon and then embraces him in shame and empathy does not have anything to do with the story, but it is crucial to one's understanding of an unsavory character who nonetheless has the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong. With brief screen time, the commanding Sam Elliott (2007's "Ghost Rider
") and the ethereal Eva Green (2005's "Kingdom of Heaven
") as, respectively, helpful aeronaut Lee Scoresby and queen of the witches Serafina Pekkala, fit the bill and presumably will have more to do if the second and third in the "His Dark Materials" series are adapted. Not meeting expectations is Daniel Craig's (2006's "Casino Royale
") turn as Lord Asriel; despite advertised as having a major role, Craig's part is really just an extended cameo.
The star of the film, and rightfully so, is newcomer Dakota Blue Richards. As Lyra Belacqua, 13-year-old Richards' confidence and lack of overly expressive affectations belie her age and inexperience. That she is not a conventional beautyshe is more authentically tomboyishis perfect for the character she plays. A young heroine for the twenty-first century who beats to her own drummer, Lyraand, in turn, Richardsis the sort of spunky, resourceful protagonist you actively want to root for, and do.
Majestically scored by Alexandre Desplat (2007's "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
") and sweepingly photographed by Henry Braham (2006's Flyboys
"), "The Golden Compass" is a rich and rewarding motion picture, one that thematically places a much-needed indictment on general theocratic oppression rather than, as some narrow-minded people claim, the Catholic Church. Laced with landscapes and adventurous set-pieces to marvel overthe climactic nighttime battle pitting the endangered children, flying witches and Iorek against the hired Magisterium cronies and their wolf dæmons is thrillingthe film may be in a genre that includes "The Lord of the Rings
," "Harry Potter
" and "The Chronicles of Narnia
," but it etches a one-of-a-kind spot for itself within that echelon. Whether or not author Philip Pullman's other two volumes in the trilogy, "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass," will be put into production at New Line Cinema depends on the financial success of "The Golden Compass." For the sake of audiences tired of being force-fed derivative remakes and lazy formulaic puff pieces, let's hope for the best. "The Golden Compass" is an equal parts thoughtful and exhilarating joy to behold.