Golden Compass, The (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: December 7th, 2007

Although this might be a tad convoluted and distant for the younger set, The Golden Compass is still a truly fantastical journey filled with wondrous imagery. A real visual treat.

Story

Based on the first of Philip Pullman's bestselling fantasy trilogy, The Golden Compass follows along the same lines as the Harry Potter series. It is set in a parallel universe very much like our own, but not quite, in which there are witches who fly the skies, armored ice bears who rule the north, and individual animal spirits called ''daemons'' who are intricately joined to their human counterparts. And of course there is also the whole good vs. evil milieu. The bad guys in this scenario are the Magisterium, a group of high-minded intellectuals running the joint who want to control all of humanity by basically eliminating free will. Our heroine is 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), who turns out to be the Magisterium's greatest threat because she is the child destined to possess the last remaining Golden Compass, a truth-telling device. Still with me? Her uncle, the scientist Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), is captured by the Magisterium, while a benefactress, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), takes Lyra under her wing--mind you, not for benevolent reasons. Escaping Mrs. Coulter's clutches, Lyra sets out to find her loyal friend, who has mysteriously joined the hundreds of children currently disappearing without a trace. Her adventure takes her over sky and ocean to the north, and with her band of friends and allies--and the power of the Golden Compass--Lyra will need all her skill and courage to stop the war that's coming. Whew, that's a tall order to fill for one little girl.

Acting

But don't let the little-girl act fool you. As played by the lovely Richards in her debut performance, Lyra is one tough cookie, seemingly unafraid of the challenges she faces, including confronting a 12-foot-tall polar bear charging at her, among other things. Much like Daniel Radcliffe before her, the plucky actress is quite a find and should The Golden Compass trilogy continue, she'll be an indelible part of it. As will Kidman and Craig, as the yin-and-yang parental figures in Lyra's life--particularly Kidman, who doesn't stretch much but is effective as Mrs. Coulter. The enchanting lady, whose daemon is a nasty golden monkey that doesn't talk (fits the character perfectly), really does have ice water flowing through her veins. Also good are Sam Elliott as Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and Eva Green as the ethereal witch Serafina Pekkala. But the character who makes the biggest impression, both literally and figuratively, is the armored ice bear Iorek Byrnison, an exiled prince from his homeland of Svalbard who is looking for a little retribution. As voiced by Ian McKellen (who else?), Iorek is definitely a force to be reckoned with every time he is on screen. His bear-on-bear battle with the reigning Svalbardian king, who kicked him out, is one of the film's best moments. Love the character names, too.

Direction

There's a lot going on in The Golden Compass, which might confuse the smaller ones in the audience. Pullman's books are dense, much like the Harry Potter series, and one must stay pretty focused to follow all the film's plot points--some of which will, with any luck, make more sense further down the line. And it is also, at times, hard to stay emotionally involved in the spectacle of it all (the exception is definitely the ice bears). But still, if you allow yourself to be immersed in this fantastical, purely make-believe world of gadgetry, grandeur and austerity, much like the worlds of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, then you shouldn't be too disappointed with Golden Compass. Even more amazing is the director who came up with the film's vision: Chris Weitz, best known for helming the little British dramedy About a Boy. Maybe not the first choice, but it's clear the director is passionate about the material, as he covers as much ground as possible in the first installment. Probably the most fascinating part are the daemons, who are the animal manifestations of their human counterparts, interconnected in all ways. Some have smaller, domestic animals such as dogs, cats, mice; some, like Lord Asriel, have big animals such as snow leopard; some even have insects. It gets your mind wandering about what yours might be.

Bottom Line

Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.