Having only dipped my toe in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, I can’t venture whether fans of his philosophy-tinged young-adult fiction will enjoy “The Golden Compass,” the lavish screen adaptation of the first installment. There’s little question, though, that it will be gobbled up by fans of big-budget widescreen fantasy.
The story unfolds in a parallel world of Art Deco flying machines, retro-futurist architecture and Hogwarts-style sorcery. In this universe, talking bears, witches, supernatural inventions and metaphysical bridges between dimensions are matters of everyday fact and the subject of scientific inquiry. In fact, digging into these mysteries is the main enterprise of Oxford University, where 12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) lives with her daemon (her soul in animal form; everyone has one).
A disobedient orphan scamp with a fluent ability to lie, the girl yearns to break free from the school’s stuffy confines. When she eavesdrops on her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), she learns that her guardian’s polar expedition has discovered a link between the Northern Lights and a celestial city that casts off sparkling magical dust. Asriel urges his fellow scholars to underwrite another voyage, but this is a mission that Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney, in a sinister comb-over), aims to sabotage. Pavel is an emissary of the Magisterium, a ministry of thought committed to enforcing its own dogma.
Pullman’s prizewinning novels have been hailed as sourcebooks for religious freethinkers and damned as secular heresy, but there’s scarcely a contentious frame in “The Golden Compass.” Carefully scrubbed free of theocratic controversy, it gives us a standard world of kids’-adventure spectacle. Prayer circles can stand at ease: No child seeing this movie will demand the collected works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for Christmas.
Instead, we follow the gallant Lyra on exploits that carry her from London’s most glamorous salons to gypsy hideaways, and from fantastical ice palaces to experimental labs where children are electrically jolted into mind control. The action is crisply paced, the cast is committed to playing it straight, and if the script is pulling its punches, that doesn’t weaken the story’s headlong energy.
As she makes her way toward the Arctic Circle, Lyra collects colorful enemies (Nicole Kidman shimmers with ice-queen spite as a wealthy ally of the Magisterium) and allies (Bond girl Eva Green as a benevolent witch, Sam Elliott as the cowboy pilot of a zeppelin ship and Ian McKellen voicing a deposed warrior-king polar bear intent on regaining his throne). Lyra’s guide through this world is her alethiometer, or golden compass, which enables her to divine the truth about puzzling circumstances. The bad guys want to steal the instrument; as the story grows increasingly baroque, viewers may wish they could borrow the alethiometer themselves.
The story swings from surprise to peril to climax and back again in competent form, but it could have used a hefty sprinkling of magic dust to carry it to the next level of enchantment. The books may have sparked controversy, but the film will leave viewers wondering what all the fuss was about.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186