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The Golden Compass

Let not your faith be shaken by armored polar bears and talking ferrets. That creepy orange monkey, though - that might do it.

New Line Cinema has garnered a lot of press over the last few weeks. Not because they've definitely hit one out of the ballpark, but because of The Golden Compass, taken from "avowed atheist" Philip Pullman's fantasy novel, the first of a cash-cow trilogy. Forget the alleged attack on religion, however; what really matters is did they succeed in producing a good film?

Writer/Director Chris Weitz sure gave it a good try. Remaining almost doggedly faithful to the novel, Weitz manages to maintain the sweep of its plot. The production design by Dennis Gassner succeeds in giving the film a sense of being very other, as The Golden Compass takes place specifically on a parallel Earth, with the assumption that our dimension may become a target. Things look familiar in places but not quite right. Yet it's very natural and still feels open, not sound-stage bound as too much of Disney's Narnia work. This really is a believable alien land.

As if the shape-changing animals running alongside the children wasn't a clue. In this world, humans have their souls outside their bodies, linked by an invisible bond, called daemons. They provide conscience, insight and eternal friendship without making their people look crazy. Call them totem animals made physical. Though mercurial at first, once a child hits puberty, his daemon settles into one animal form, reflecting something of its host.

Unremarked in the film is that daemons are also of the opposite gender, probably because the plot rushes by before anyone can appreciate any such nuances. Thus Kristin Scott Thomas gets credit for voicing the magnificent snow leopard that accompanies Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), yet you can be forgiven if you forgot the leopard ever spoke. Only Freddie Highmore really registers as the ferret/butterfly/sparrow daemon Pantalaimon; he's way too crucial to the action to be silent.

Plucky orphan heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) stumbles onto the reason for that adolescent change. Her uncle Lord Asriel has discovered proof of "Dust," otherworldly particles that influence development and according to the all-powerful ruling Magisterium, are the root of all sin.

So a quest begins, involving zeppelins, wild and mysterious "Gyptians," the sinister Gobblers and those magnificent armored ears. At stake, the very lives of this world's children as the Magisterium and their agent, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) experiment to remove their free will.

Or at least, that's what's at stake in the book. Weitz' script packs so much plot into its frame that the meaning keeps falling out. Occasionally characters have to stop and provide exposition to explain it, but nothing gets to resonate. There's just no time when you have to occasionally cut away to evil plotting from some of cinema's best evil plotters - above Kidman (best savored as icy evil) lurks Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee, the latter determined to get into every major fantasy franchise he can.

Despite the excitement, Weitz keeps giving us head-scratching moments, either moving too fast or stopping dead to deliver some moral message. When Lyra ponders the Magisterium, Mrs. Coulter bluntly explains that people need to have other people telling them what to do in order to be truly happy. Perhaps the same scene happens in the novel, but it just feels clunky to put it all into one heavy-handed speech. We could probably have gleaned it from Jacobi's wicked smile and attempts to pull strings behind the scenes.

Much of the threat also seems arbitrary. Before we can even register that the lower classes are being terrorized by "the Gobblers," a force kidnapping their children, the mystery has been solved without allowing us to savor the dread. When the magnificent polar bear Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen) appears, his plight and conflict get mentioned, but with no depth. Aside from Lyra and her daemon, the characters are just plot devices, disappearing and reappearing to charge the story.

Yet every actor gives it his all. By virtue of magnetism, Sam Elliott almost steals the last third of the movie as balloonist Lee Scoresby, even though we get nothing of him besides charm. Kidman gives one of her best performances in years, a perfect fit between character and actor. And of course Craig - please. There's a reason he's James Bond.

They all revolve around newcomer Richards, and she settles in to her role. That's also the nature of the story; Lyra begins as a somewhat bratty child and matures through her experiences. If only Weitz had found a way to trust us to mature and learn with her instead of running pell-mell for an conclusive inconclusive ending.

Allegedly the studio forced Weitz to curtail the narrative, so perhaps he can't be blamed for that. This Magisterium thing goes deeper than we thought. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't.

Derek McCaw

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