The Golden Compass
Written and directed by Chris Weitz

Starring Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott


The Golden Compass

Sometimes a movie can have too much publicity before it opens; people have already made up their minds for or against it. I think that's what happened to "The Golden Compass." The whole question of whether the film is anti-Christ, or anti-Christian, or atheistic or what have you, was put in people's minds months before it actually appeared; even people who wanted to treat it as a child's adventure - which it is - were already stuck with someone else's prejudice. I don't think any film could have survived that kind or publicity.

But the fact is that "The Golden Compass" is a superb children's adventure that very few children are actually going to see for themselves. I read the book this fall and was surprised to find that I was a bit disappointed - Philip Pullman, the author of the trilogy "His Dark Materials" of which this is the first book - seemed to have run out of inspiration along about the time everything comes together for a grand finale. But the fact is, the film is actually better than the book. Much as I love the Harry Potter series, only the first films of it have caught J.K. Rowling's genius, and without doubt the film is infinitely better than "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Lyra Belacqua, the wonderful child heroine, played by Dakota Blue Richards, has just the right balance of childishness and bravery to make all her adventures seem perfectly real, a kind of Dorothy in the land of Oz. The world of Lyra is a kind of parallel universe to our own, something like Victorian England, where there are dirigibles to get around in, witches here and there, and a great bear king in the far north. The story is that a force called the Magisterium is intent on stomping out any resistance - call the Magisterium fascists, call them - as the current Catholic Church did - a medieval version of the Church itself, and not to be seen by any good Catholic - but they are a brutal and malign force bent on controlling the world. Everyone in the world has a soul, in this case a daemon in the form of an animal who cannot be separated from them. Lyra's uncle, Lord Asriel (played by Daniel Craig), has given Lyra a kind of compass that tells what the truth is - an alethiometer is what it's called. While he goes off to the far north to pursue his investigation of a kind of universal dust that comes from other planets, even other universes, she must escape the Magisterium and find who or what has been kidnapping other children and cutting them loose from their daemons, something that will make them into soulless slaves. Lyra is taken in by a beautiful woman, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), but finds out that Mrs. Coulter is not what she seems.

Escaping, she is helped by a group called the Gyptians, by a bear king named Iorek, by a Texas adventurer named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and by a witch named Serafina (Eva Green). The script and direction, both by Chris Weitz, are faithful to the book and - thanks to Dakota Blue Richards - are sufficiently suspenseful to keep anyone on the edge of his seat. The film of "The Golden Compass" ends a little before the book does, implying that the producers want to continue with Book II of the trilogy, but with the lackluster box-office results, I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you.