That New Line Cinema
did so well with the Lord of the Rings trilogy is both a blessing and a curse. After supporting Peter Jackson's fine work, it's a natural assumption that the company has the means and access to the appropriate talent to develop strong adaptations of youthful fantasy materials (ignoring Dungeons & Dragons, of course). It is, in fact, quite difficult to discuss another such type of film without comparing, but doing so threatens to tarnish some of the shine that The Golden Compass deserves.
I should note that I have read the original Philip Pullman books that this trilogy will be based on. Like Tolkien, Pullman creates a multi-layered world to journey through, but he tends to be tighter with narrative style than Tolkien. What he lacks in verbosity he makes up for in texture, and this may be where some problems will lie for an audience, as he is comfortable not sharing useful character and cultural details immediately. Over the course of this film, some information does get left out to respect the audience's time in a theater, but it in no way affects the enjoyment of watching Lyra's (Dakota Blue Richards
) story unfold. Article continues below
The tale starts out feeling like a rushed jumble of attitudinal moments where children and adults say funny and serious things before the camera cuts to the next verbal jolt. It's practically impossible to follow what they are saying, and you wonder if you've stepped into the middle of a conversation. It takes a little too much time to get your bearings as to what is going on and even for whom you are supposed to be cheering. Once you can finally follow the events, you realize the meaning of some previous cues, but it's too late to digest what you might have found useful, as the film forcefully pushes ahead.
As Lyra's uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig
) chastises her for snooping, though she saves him from poison, a glamorous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman
) strides through the front door and convinces the Jordan College staff where Lyra is a boarder to allow the young lady to venture out with her. It is once you see Coulter's monkey daemon (an animal companion manifestation of the subject's soul) heavily petting Lyra's daemon that you are finally able to understand who you are following and what to watch out for.
Lyra leaves with Mrs. Coulter at the prospect to go to the north. She had been secretly watching her uncle propose a controversial expedition to the staff of Jordan College to explore why "dust" was flowing into a man through his daemon. She hopes that Mrs. Coulter will be following a similar course, but soon realizes no plans have been made for a journey. Mrs. Coulter has taken the time to play dress-up with Lyra and take her to parties with rich people, and Lyra becomes curious about what is locked away in Mrs. Coulter's office. When she finds paperwork connecting her with the General Oblation Board (also called Gobblers), she becomes aware that her hero is involved with the disappearance of her classmates. When Lyra escapes her clutches, her new goal becomes to find the children.
The rest of the film is really well paced, beautiful to watch, and has a fluid combination of joyful triumphs and lurking darkness. Lyra's search for the children that are going missing at the hands of Gobblers, including her closest friend Roger (Ben Walker
), becomes an intelligent and engaging series of episodes of small challenges. From learning how to read the ancient object the film is named for to winning an armed ice bear's loyalty, Lyra uses believable cunning and an innocent sense of justice to guide us through a variety of battles in pursuit of universal freedom.
Writer/director Chris Weitz
handles the material with ease once he becomes comfortable with it, and newcomer Dakota's spunk is entirely infectious. Kidman plays Coulter's various depths with aptitude and gracefully leaves you wondering who will aid Lyra for their own good, or for the betterment of all. There is just enough societal context to understand what is at stake, and to engender care for the outcome, without any overwhelming pedantic lessons to preach.
The Golden Compass creatively evokes how a child's curiosity and care ropes people into her purpose and allows her to grow from a mischievous, unsupervised tot to a being capable of leading and working towards a greater good.