A review of “The Golden Compass” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for fantasy violence and intensity

Run Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

 

 

New Line Cinema is betting the bank on this ambitious franchise based on Philip Pullman’s fanciful novels (“His Dark Materials”) that will turn trilogy quicker than you can say “Lord of the Rings”.

But the comparison ends there. The action centers on precocious Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), the 12-year old niece of handsome adventurer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) who has been secretly gifted with the sixth golden compass.

The compass is a magical Alethiometer, a truth compass that reads the past and future with startling accuracy. Lyra’s mission is clear – sort of. She’s the youthful voice of reason straddling a rational scientific field and that of the oppressive Magisterium, an evil hierarchal order intent on claiming young souls.

Determined to rescue a missing friend Lyra sets out for an Arctic universe. Mixed into notions of Ice Bear Kingdoms and child-stealing Gobblers are whispers of Lord Asriel’s discovery of a special golden dust that may provide a supernatural connection between analogous worlds.

No one can be trusted in what ultimately becomes an imaginative cat-and-mouse game, or so it appears. Dark battles light with eyes on a nebulous prize.

Nicole Kidman is deliciously ghoulish – yet utterly radiant – as the mysterious Mrs. Coulter, who may or may not have Lyra’s best interests at heart. Stately master bear Iorek’s (voice of Ian McKellan, natch) loyalties, however, are crystal clear; he has Lyra’s back and is one of a myriad of talking animals that include entertaining, shape-shifting alter egos known as daemons.

It sounds complex and it is, stuffed to the gills with metaphysical concepts and myriads of witches and hobgoblins that are introduced but spend long stretches off-screen; most notably Eva Green as the sorceress Serafina.

The furious debate over the film’s religious undertones, or lack thereof, is gaining steam. In early October the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a boycott of the film, accusing it of “selling atheism to kids”. Secularists complain that the movie soft-sells Pullman’s religious critique. “The Chronicles of Narnia” redux.

Bluescreen tech is commendable as are the compass graphics and, my personal favorite, the Spy Fly; a golden cousin to the spindly super-spiders of “Minority Report”. An icy bear war between Iorek and the North’s bear king is particularly thrilling.

Fortunately it isn’t all about the effects. Craig, Kidman and Richards deliver affecting performances that lend heft and humanity to the overriding whimsy.

But “Compass” has that slick, packaged feeling; a calculating aura that screams bottom line. The folks at New Line needn’t worry; this one’s destined to be a cash cow.