U.S. Release Date: December 7, 2007
Distributor: New Line
Director: Chris Weitz
Writer: Chris Weitz
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Elliott, Ian McKellen (Voice), Freddie Highmore (Voice)
Running Time: 1 hour and 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (sequences of fantasy violence)

Directional Fantasy Loses Its Way
by Scott Holleran

From Hogwarts to Hoth, with oodles of clever literary references, The Golden Compass manages to evoke several popular movie franchises without establishing a theme of its own. Based on Philip Pullman's children's fantasy novels—roundly denounced as anti-religious by religious extremists—the star-studded adaptation starts off strong and trails off into the abyss.

That's not the fault of Dakota Blue Richards, who portrays the story's wild girl protagonist Lyra (pronounced like the Italian currency). This kid powers the first half of the computer-generated movie, grabbing one's attention with a rebellious quality that simultaneously bucks and questions authority—none of that causeless willingness to sacrifice her life like those Narnia children—and she holds her own with the boys. When an evil adult threatens her with an irrational command, the child growls like a cornered cat: "But I don't want to…"

To what end Lyra is using the title's mysterious compass—which only she can properly possess—is the movie's main obstacle. Describing the plot is nearly impossible because the exposition of the fantasy concepts is a passing thought to writer and director Chris Weitz (About a Boy), who appears to have been swept up in the frenzy of the thing, which is too bad because there are several promising fragments.

Between Gyptians—not Egyptians, though real Earthbound places are cited, too, just to confuse—and broom-based witches with no apparent interest in men, The Golden Compass pummels the viewer with countless characters, peoples and plot deviations. The worst of these involves polar bears—known as ice bears in this world—that rule entire kingdoms and hold lifelong grudges. When Lyra inexplicably begins flirting with one of them, the picture loses its way.

That climactic scene, peaking too soon and having no real impact on, or relevance to, the central story progression, is one of many that's startlingly violent—children and animals are gored and electrocuted—in a movie that's also remarkably loud. Lyra leads the way to rescue children and, introducing new terms and characters right up until the end, she attracts the attention of a band of Nazi-Catholic types (driven by Nicole Kidman), an uncle (Daniel Craig, disappearing for most of the movie) and one of those flying witches.

With an air of theatricality, fun and fantasy—battling the Vatican-ish Magisterium's minions—The Golden Compass recalls everything from Pirates of the Caribbean and Escape from Witch Mountain to The Lord of the Rings. But it lacks cohesion, as if it's mandated to include each literary invention without regard to intelligibility. The Golden Compass lets the needle spin around and around.

When it stops, with something to do with lost kids, particle dust and hints at heroic Lyra's aristocratic origins, it isn't particularly important. One of the dozens of characters asks: "Is that all?" which sums up the feeling one gets after sitting through this busy, noisy extravaganza. Certain scenes work well but it always seems like seeds are being planted without being brought to bloom.

Loaded with intellectual ammunition, such as Lyra demanding to know why someone helps her, saving self first and a noble character refusing to live in shame, religionists are right to sense that The Golden Compass is not another Biblical fantasy, but directional signals are not a sense of direction, so neither is it a secular alternative.

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