Long before the book became a movie, Christian groups attacked Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” series because of its clearly anti-religious message. So it makes sense the movie would be subjected to the same invective.

Clif Reeder
Yeah, yeah. It measures truth. But can it hit a jumpshot against Duke? (COURTESY OF NEW LINE)

But the message isn’t the movie’s problem (it ignores the book’s context, anyway). The makers of “The Golden Compass” know its kiddie audience wants to be enticed by spectacle, and in that sense, it succeeds – it’s a gorgeous movie. That doesn’t mean it knows how to tell a story, and the fantasy set will no doubt be disappointed with the movie’s hollow characters and lack of cohesiveness.

The golden compass itself is a device called an Alethiometer. If used properly, it can answer almost any question. The compass is put in the safekeeping of Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a rebellious young girl. This is a problem, because a device like this is valuable and bad people want it.

The main villain: Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). She seems sweet at first but quickly turns evil. Her heinous plan involves kidnapping children and cutting away their daemons – little animal forms of a person’s soul that accompany them through life. There’s more to this plan, most of which involves magic dust. The dust probably plays a role in the war so often discussed in the film. But we don’t actually see any part of this war. Guess they’re saving that for the sequel.

The film has obvious parallels to “Harry Potter” as well as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and for good reason. It’s based on a series of books, it involves magical worlds outside of our own and everyone is British. Is it a rule that fantasy can only exist in the United Kingdom? Can’t Americans do magic, too?

But that’s not important. “The Golden Compass” series is the least known and least popular of the three, maybe because it’s too complicated for younger kids to grasp. The film retains too much of the book’s plot, with very little explanation given. This can lead to some confusion, as the film includes several fancy names and terms tossed about without regard for the audience’s understanding.

It’s a lot to deal with, but don’t get confused. Even more so than most works of fiction, “Compass” requires the complete suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t really matter if you know what’s in front of you. See this movie because of its amazing visuals, which are often breathtaking and, surprisingly enough, rarely cheesy.

The characters are often just as colorful as the pyrotechnics, but many get so little screen time that it becomes hard to care about them. Take Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, “Casino Royale”), who, based on the film’s wall-to-wall advertisements, seems to be onscreen quite a bit. But his appearance is practically a cameo. Many other characters, in particular those played by Eva Green (um, “Casino Royale”) and the veteran Sam Elliott, deserve far more attention than the film gives them. Still, the movie manages to take a talking polar bear and turn him into the audience cares about. Not easy.

Don’t expect to understand much of “The Golden Compass,” even after the lights go up. But since the film’s purpose is to amaze and awe, it works.

Rating: Three out of five stars.

The Golden Compass
At Quality 16 and Showcase
New Line

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