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, might find it hard to take seriously, despite how seriously it takes itself.
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; becuase 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.
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.
Lyra 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). One day she receives from the headmaster the last remaining golden compass -- a device that provides the true answer to any question -- and must use it to find other children who have 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 Ms. 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, Ms. Kidman oozes old-school Hollywood glamour, and her entrance in a glittering, form-fitting gold gown is a stunner.
After she escapes the wicked Coulter's clutches, Lyra finds an eclectic mix of allies in a traveling band known as the Gyptians.
About that controversy that Mr. 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'
STUDIO: New Line Cinema
MPAA RATING: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
THE VERDICT: *1/2 out of ****