Having never read the source material, but most definitely a serious fan of the fantasy genre, I walked into Chris Weitz's adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass with a small sense of schizophrenia. As much as I enjoy epic adventures, daring escapes, dramatic battles and all that magical stuff, I'm well aware that every studio in Hollywood has tried to copy-cat the success of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings. Between Narnia, Eragon, Stardust, The Seeker, Beowulf, and a few others (with Inkheart and The Spiderwick Chronicles on the way!), it's tough to keep track of which ethereal realm needs the assistance of which plucky youths in order to thwart which decidedly nasty villain.
But it seems a little silly to complain, especially when you consider that the last time the "swords and sorcery" sub-genre had a revolution, it yielded movies like Legend, Labyrinth, Ladyhawke, Dragonslayer and Krull. (Yes, all of which I like.) Our latest entry into the family-friendly epic adventure category is, of course, The Golden Compass, which is based on a rather controversial fantasy novel that has the audacity to (gasp) criticize organized religion. But since pretty much all of the subtext has been drained out of this movie version, we can skip all that nonsense and cut right to the meat of the movie -- which is pretty damn fun, if you ask me.
The setting is a parallel universe in which people look a lot like we do ... only they all have personal "daemons" that hang nearby at all times. Not creepy Clive Barker-style demons, these are more like magical talking animals that share a soul with their respective 'masters' -- and the kids' daemons can morph into different animals at will. Cool! Our heroine is a precocious young tomboy called Lyra, and her adventure begins when she's whisked away from Jordan College by a mysterious lovely known as Mrs. Coulter. (It comes as little surprise to learn that Mrs. Coulter actually isn't that nice a lady, but let's not spoil things for those who haven't read the books.)
Turns out that not only is Lyra destined to play a pivotal role in the breakdown of the nefarious "Magesterium" (government), but she's also required to rescue a bunch of kidnapped children, protect the world's last remaining "alethiometer" (truth-meter), discover the secrets about her mysterious lineage, and defeat the conniving king of the ice bears. Along the way Lyra will have to befriend all sorts of colorful creatures: gypsies and cowboys and witches, oh my! At its heart, The Golden Compass is little more than a well-scrubbed and visually impressive quest story, but it's presented with such color and confidence that it's tough not to get swept up in the spectacle of it all. (One can't help but feel that the more "controversial" aspects in Pullman's book might have made for a more challenging film, although definitely a less profitable one.)
If you're one of those movie fans who expressed some skepticism when Chris Weitz (the guy who directed American Pie and About a Boy) was handed the keys to this particular kingdom, you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn that the director acquits himself quite well here. Sure, as with most 'earnest' fantasies, you'll get a few moments of camp silliness, but for the most part The Golden Compass is an admirably straight-faced (if eventually more playful) adventure that takes its tale pretty seriously. The plot may be little more than a mixture of Harry Potter, Pinocchio and the age-old 'coming of age' hero quest we all know and love, but there's something to be said for a slick-looking adventure movie that does an admirable job of introducing a new world, what with all the shiny buildings and strange clothes and exotic monsters.
As the effortlessly likable Lyra, young Dakota Blue Richards is really quite excellent. In many ways, a movie like this (even with all its flashy names and gee-whiz effects) really relies on its lead kid, and Richards makes for an instantly affable character. Nicole Kidman offers some of her sliest work in years as the two-faced Marisa Coulter, Daniel Craig has a few commanding moments as a noble scientist, and the great Sam Elliott pops up in the middle of things and damn near steals the whole expensive movie. Also of note are some recognizable-yet-effective pieces of voice casting, particularly Ian McKellen as a disgraced warrior bear and Ian McShane as his hateful nemesis. For icing on the cake we get an awesome little Christopher Lee moment and the stunning Eva Green as a butt-kickin' witch woman!
If The Golden Compass takes a little while to pick up steam and deliver a ride worth taking, the set pieces, colorful cast, and surprisingly witty script make up for the slow start. By the time the flick draws to a close (with more questions than answers, of course, this being a series and all), you'll be treated to a few rousing battles and some character moments that'll probably make you smile. It's all just simple fairy-tale fantasy fare (and NOT the anti-religion propaganda that some would have you believe), presented with a lot of energy, imagination and momentum. Not too many of the fantasy genre latecomers are really worth a damn (I'm looking at you, Eragon and Seeker), but as far as 2007 goes, I'd be perfectly happy sitting down with a double feature of Stardust and The Golden Compass. Doubly so if I was 12 years old.