'The Golden Compass:' Read the books first

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"The Golden Compass": controversial statement on free will vs. religious oppression or a hard-to-follow fantasy-action flick for kids? Let's go with the latter.

When we first meet the heroine Lyra (played sassily by Dakota Blue Richards) in "The Golden Compass," she's scrapping through the muck with neighborhood kids in Oxford, England, and bluffing her friend Roger out of trouble. She doesn't know much about her identity, but in classic fantasy style, she's being groomed for something at the Jordan University, and rumors of prophecies about her abound. When she hides in a wardrobe (shades of "Narnia"), she hears of a mysterious Dust and spies a man who tries to poison her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig in a low-key role), before her uncle sets off on an expedition to find this Dust. If you have a friend who has read the books, buy her a ticket and take her along. You'll need her.

The action escalates quickly. "Gobblers," who kidnap children, steal Roger. A mysterious and beautiful woman, Mrs. Coulter (played exquisitely by Nicole Kidman), befriends Lyra, and takes her to her cold home as her assistant on the way to explore "the north." Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter runs the organization that steals the children, so she decides she must run off to find Roger. Along the way, she has to sort out friends and foes among the witches, Gyptians, Magisterium and bears. Helping her is a golden compass, called an alethiometer, which tells the truth, if you know how to read it.

In this alternate world, every person's soul lives outside his or her body in an animal form called a daemon, and the animal that accompanies each person seems reflective of who they are as a person. Daemons are defined by the dictionary as "guardian spirits who are supposed to look after a person." Lyra's daemon changes from bird to mouse to ferret to cat, while Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a nasty golden gorilla, Lord Asriel's daemon is a beautiful snow leopard and the head of the Magisterium carries a snake.

The acting is impeccable from performers to voices. Kidman is pitch perfect as the icy, silky-voiced siren. Sam Elliott is a hoot as Lee Scoresby, a practical Texan whose daemon is a long-eared hare (voice by Kathy Bates), who is friends with a polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by the sonorous Ian McKellen) and pilots a balloon that comes in mighty handy for those oft-needed rescues.

I would have liked to spend some quality time with Lyra's friend and protector, the warrior bear Iorek, a gorgeous creature whose ferocity is tempered by his resemblance to some familiar cuddly polar bears. It is hard to keep your mind off the concession stand when you are waiting for Iorek to offer Lyra a Coke.

A word of caution for those ready to treat their children to another "Chronicles of Narnia," with its Christian allegory. Philip Pullman's trilogy (which the movie is based on) has been called the anti-Narnia in the way it borrows certain C.S. Lewis imagery -- including the wardrobe, the talking animals and the existence of other worlds -- but uses the story to make a case against an authoritarian body referred to as the Magisterium (a Catholic term) in the movie. The Magisterium wants to control people "for their own good," while Lyra fights for her right and for those of the other children to think and feel for themselves.

People (like me) who haven't read the books may have difficulty sorting through what the bad guys want with the children and what Dust is. Toward the end, Lyra tells a friend, "I want to know what Dust is." You and me both, kid. But not so badly that I'd sit through a sequel to find out.

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