Big, noisy, and fantastic yet curiously sodden, too, filled with talking animals, sparkly light showers, and vague hints of ''religious'' feeling that are never more than distant echoes, The Golden Compass is a snowbound mystical-whizbang kiddie ride that hovers somewhere between the loopy and the lugubrious. You could argue that the movie does its job, since it keeps giving you things to gawk at. Look, a sky darkens as it fills up with witches! Look, a pair of polar bears engage in an Arctic smackdown worthy of the WWE! Look, it's Nicole Kidman her creamy shoulders tensing, her eyebrows dancing with dark delight acting hot enough to belong in an entirely different film!
Some of this qualifies as spectacle, but very little of it takes hold as organic wonder. Perhaps that's because writer-director Chris Weitz, adapting the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, has made a movie that flirts with theological solemnity yet fuzzes it out at the same time. The Golden Compass is a chronicle of blarnia. The movie, like the trilogy, has already been attacked by the Catholic Church, which has accused Compass of being an attack upon it. Yet the cleansing sternness of Pullman's vision has mostly been wiped away, leaving a film that knows what it's against (frowning white-haired conspiracists in fussy clerical suits) but never quite figures out a way to voice what it's for.
As the movie opens, we could be in a novel by Jules Verne. Lyra, 12 years old, is played by Dakota Blue Richards, who has the ringlets of a '60s Disney heroine and a lot of charming Irish pluck. Lyra is the ward of Jordan College, an Oxbridge-like institution that looks like something out of the 1890s except that the surrounding city has a sci-fi celestial glow, full of contraptions like a nifty wooden blimp and street vehicles that whir with futuristic precision. It's also full of smarmy bad guys who belong to the Magisterium, an authoritarian star chamber with a dastardly plan.
Lyra, like all of her orphaned school chums, is accompanied by her ''daemon,'' a talking animal spirit-companion hers is a cat that shape-shifts into other animals, even as it remains a mischievous reflection of her own soul. It's no accident these creatures are referred to by a word that conjures devils: They are meant (at least, in Pullman's books) to suggest the potential for sin embedded in the life force. That's what the Magisterium wants to demolish. The organization has taken a passel of children, including Lyra's best friend (Ben Walker), to the frozen North for the purpose of separating them from their daemons, turning them into neuterized clones of goodness.
Do you see why the Catholic Church objected? In outline, The Golden Compass is a protest against organized piety, yet the suggestive power of daemons, and also of the mystic substance known as ''Dust'' (no, the Magisterium isn't crazy about that one either), is just window dressing for a poky, one-dimensional rescue adventure. Lyra must first elude the clutches of the aristocratic Magisterium comrade Mrs. Coulter (Kidman), who traps her in her mansion. This part of the film has some brio, thanks mostly to Kidman's high-style villainy. Lyra, however, quickly escapes and ends up trekking to the North, where she meets a great big bunch of critters and characters.
They are not very enthralling, and neither is Lyra's odyssey. Ian McKellen voices Byrnison, an ''ice bear'' with a gruff, sad, scarred exterior and a heart of softest gold. The force of McKellen's voice could wake anyone up, as he alchemizes Byrnison's melancholy into triumphant anger, but I wish Lyra had a few quieter scenes with him. She's too busy banding with the Gyptians, a crew of tedious nomads, or with the sexy witch Serafina (the lustrous Eva Green, in too ill-defined a role), or with Sam Elliott as a roving Texas airman (say what?), the actor's overcooked-grits basso drawl more precious than ever. The titular compass, which allows Lyra to answer any question put to her by letting her mind drift through psychedelic sprinkles, should have been more central to the plot. It's a magical-mechanical MacGuffin.
Daniel Craig, in case you were wondering, is in the movie for about 10 minutes as Lyra's tweedy professorial uncle, who goes off to the North in search of Dust. (One presumes he'll have a larger role in the sequel.) And just what is Dust? To judge from the post-movie discussions I heard, those who have read the books will feel far more enlightened about it than those with little to go on but the occasional sprinkle of gold. That's the kind of movie The Golden Compass is: a fantasy that leaves you chattering about particles. C
Want more? See EW's in-depth look at the controversy surrounding The Golden Compass