With its teeming cast of villainous magistrates and enigmatic warriors, “The Golden Compass” is a dizzying experience, a labyrinthine epic condensed into two hours of effects-driven fantasy and hasty exposition. Will that be enough to satisfy fans of Philip Pullman’s widely read “His Dark Materials” trilogy? Hard to say. But for the uninitiated this is an engaging adventure, even when Chris Weitz’s screenplay lacks the compelling clarity of Pullman’s prose.
It’s easy to understand why some have likened “The Golden Compass” to “The Chronicles of Narnia” — both stories thrust unwitting children into battle in an alternate universe inhabited by treacherous adults, anthropomorphic beasts and mysterious witches. Ideologically, though, they couldn’t be more different.
While C.S. Lewis intended his novels as a testament to the glory of Christianity, Pullman — an avowed atheist who has never concealed his disdain for “Narnia” — conceived “The Golden Compass” as a thinly veiled critique of the church’s archaic and inflexible doctrine. Here, Pullman’s allegory has been toned down by Weitz, who concentrates more on the story’s aesthetics than on its most subversive elements.
In that regard, “The Golden Compass” isn’t likely to make anyone forget the visual splendor of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but it remains an impressive feat, seamlessly blending live action with the superior (and tastefully employed) animation necessary to give Pullman’s world of “daemons” — talkative, shape-shifting animals who represent extensions of their human masters’ souls — an authentic feel.
Lesser actors might have been upstaged by so many CGI critters and elegantly rendered set pieces, but “The Golden Compass” is driven by an ensemble cast that breathes ferocious life into Pullman’s dark material. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, as young heroine Lyra Belacqua, is a revelation. At 13, she has real presence, bringing tense, wild-eyed energy to a precocious orphan who, like Harry Potter, is thought to be some kind of savior.
Her credentials? For one, she’s the only soul on the planet who can interpret the golden compass, a mystical device — much like Jack Bauer’s cell phone — that can solve even the most confounding mysteries. It’s an invaluable tool, and the Magisterium, a brotherhood of sinister clerics bent on universal mind control, is determined to possess it. To that end, they deploy their most insidious weapon: Marisa Coulter (no relation to Ann), a cold-blooded manipulatrix who orchestrates a plot to kidnap children and crush their spirits through a series of sadistic experiments.
Nicole Kidman was rumored to be Pullman’s first choice for the part, and it’s not hard to see why. As a deceptively charming ice queen, she relishes her role with a diabolical abandon that is one of the film’s most sublime pleasures. Rounding out Weitz’s stellar cast are Sam Elliott, as a grizzled aeronaut; the underutilized Daniel Craig, as Lyra’s science-minded uncle; and Ian McKellen, who provides the thunderous voice of ursine warrior Iorak Byrnison.
The film’s ending is purposely open-ended, though hardly dissatisfying. Clearly, “The Golden Compass” is just the first chapter in a series of adventures planned by New Line, the same studio responsible for “Lord of the Rings.” As such, it begs a few obvious questions — the importance of Pullman’s ethereal dust, for instance, is never properly explained — but remains a thoroughly beguiling beginning.
The Golden Compass ***
Written by Philip Pullman and Chris Weitz
Directed by Chris Weitz
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes