Leopards and zeppelins and bears, oh my! Encompassing all of the above and more, The Golden Compass dazzles as the first in a new franchise of family adventure films, based on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Dakota Blue Richards stars as Lyra Belacqua, a precocious girl living in a universe parallel to our own. In this universe, people have constant companions in "daemons," the people's souls embodied in animal form. Kids like Lyra, not being fully developed, have daemons that still shift in shape until one day settling into one proper beast.
Living on the grounds of Oxford University, Lyra and her daemon Pan (a ferret/bird/moth voiced by Freddie Highmore) stumble into adventure when they save Lyra's uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) from a politically motivated assassination attempt by the crafty, power-hungry Magisterium, which looks suspiciously like a Pontifical Council running loose from the Vatican and doesn't take kindly to having its authority questioned (its seat of power is an ivory tower, and its sinister ranks include Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, and Christopher Lee).
Asriel has made waves with talk of the mysterious "dust" that may be a gateway to other worlds. Soon after he embarks on his own scientific investigation, the school's Master (Tom Courtenay) entrusts Lyra with the last and widely prized alethiometer (or "golden compass") that points out the truth in any situation. Not coincidentally, Lyra draws the interest of a well-connected, glamorous aristocrat named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who, under the guise of a mentor, takes in Lyra. When Coulter's true agenda becomes clear, Lyra and Pan become fugitives and eventually the best hope of a group of kidnapped children.
The dizzying plot unfolds before a beautiful backdrop of epic landscapes and designs reminiscent of the "Oz" illustrations of John R. Neill (thank longtime Coen Brothers production designer Dennis Gassner and costume designer Ruth Myers, among others). The colorful cast of characters comes to include an armored bear (voice of Ian McKellen), a flying witch (Eva Green), a cowboy aeronaut (Sam Elliott), and various beasts voiced by Ian McShane, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Kathy Bates. For good measure (and a bit of Lord of the Rings-styled cachet), Kate Bush sings the end credit tune "Lyra."
Superficially, The Golden Compass's posh fantasy resembles The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, with youngsters and their beastly companions swept up into a dangerous adventure, much of it in a winter wonderland, that culminates in a CGI battle. In point of fact, The Golden Compass is a sort of anti-Narnia, in the sense that C.S. Lewis' books were Christian allegory while Pullman's cast a few choice control-hungry Catholics as the bad guys and propose atheism and secular morality as alternatives to organized religion.
Those excavating the film for these themes will find them but writer-director Chris Weitz doesn't indulge them, and the ideas will sail over kids' heads. Like Wardrobe, The Golden Compass is about children coming of age into a world of good and evil, and the film's dazzling imagery and serviceable story hustle along agreeably, if a bit dourly. The hustling is a concern, with the sometimes hurried progression of bite-size scenes suggesting a full-scale movie plagued by TV pacing.
Still, Lyra makes a precocious role model for growing girls, insisting, "No one can make me a lady!", employing a gift for guile when the situation requires, and refusing to shy from danger when the cause is just. Richards ably anchors the film, with the sleekly villainous Kidman and dashing Craig often on the sidelines. Fear not: the inevitable sequel will deliver more of these characters, for as one child adventurer notes at the end of The Golden Compass, "There's an awful lot to sort out."