THE GOLDEN COMPASS written and directed by Chris Weitz, from the novel by Philip Pullman, with Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Eva Green. An Alliance release. 113 minutes. Opens Friday (December 7). Rating: NN
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring opened six years, two sequels and countless Academy Awards ago. Like a cinematic Mount Doom, its huge shadow looms over any other literary fantasy franchise that wants to approach its success.
Eragon attempted and failed. So did The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Only the first Narnia movie, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, cast any sort of spell over the box office and cultural imagination. But that had half a century of devoted readers, a high kids-'n'-cuteness factor and the fabulous Tilda Swinton as an evil queen in its favour.
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is barely a decade old, but it's got millions of young and old fans - not to mention a raging controversy about its alleged attack on Christianity. (My feeling is, if C.S. Lewis can give us a Christian allegory, why can't Pullman present an alternate universe? Good on you, Phil.)
New Line, the same studio that backed LOTR, has added lustre to The Golden Compass (the series' first book) with big-name stars like Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. And it's probably no coincidence that Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, warring wizards Gandalf and Saruman in the LOTR franchise, appear in the film - McKellen as the voice of the bear king Iorek Byrnison, and Lee as a generic baddie in the menacing, all-controlling organization called the Magisterium.
It's not just in the starry casting that you can feel New Line nervously taking out insurance on their investment. The first 10 minutes feel like Deja Fellowship Of The Ring. There's the same ethereal voice-over narration to deliver backstory (this time spoken by a head witch instead of a head elf), followed by a cut to a cute scene of little people cavorting while jaunty music plays in the background.
Too bad what follows isn't as magical as Tolkien's tale of Middle-Earth. The Golden Compass twitches excitingly here and there and occasionally points in the right direction, but in the end it needs much better navigation.
Like all fantasy tales, it's essentially about the war between good and evil. Good here is personified by 12-year-old Lyra (a poised Dakota Blue Richards), a precocious orphan at Jordan College who learns of a sinister plot involving the Magisterium (evil), the torturing of kids and some mysterious element called Dust.
It's a complicated story to set up - later books explore particle physics, alternate universes and include a pair of bitchy gay angels. (Let's see how the religious right enjoys that!) One of the big conceits of the series is that every human has a daemon, an animal personification of their soul. Until they reach adolescence, their daemon can change shape; after that, it's fixed.
My biggest worry about the adaptation was that the daemons wouldn't work onscreen. The results turn out to be uneven. They look realistic enough, but when they speak it's as if Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle and crew have trotted in from the theatre next door.
Writer/director Chris Weitz has more serious problems establishing place and character. Within one particular five-minute period, I counted the introduction of three major characters, who are each from different "worlds." That's acceptable if you know the books, but must be disorienting if you don't.
Apart from the ending, Weitz has stayed pretty faithful to the novel, but he should have created composite characters and streamlined the story to provide Lyra with a clearer narrative and goal.
The production design is handsome but unremarkable - you see one matte background, you've seen 'em all. Kidman looks great in clingy 1930s-era fashions. Even with CGI zeppelins, bears and magic compasses, the film's most memorable image remains Kidman slinking through grand hallways and draping herself over art deco furniture like the mistress of the universe.
Watching fighting polar bears is lots of fun, but after a while you just expect them to shake paws and open up a case or two of a certain brand of cola.