But first, let's consider what is right with it. Visually, it's a stunner. Multiple worlds are alluded to, all existing parallel to each other, but only one is actually seen. That one, with skyscraper-filled cities as well as vast frozen wastelands, is fantastically realized. So are the animal creatures who live in it -- they're "daemons," sort of soul mates to all of the human characters. But unlike the humans, they're also shape-shifters. Take, for example, Pan, the daemon who's cosmically tied to our young heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards). Pan can swiftly transform from a moth to a bird to a lemur to a cat -- all while running or flying next to Lyra -- without ever, even for a second, looking like a special effect. A knockdown fight between two big polar bears is a wonder to behold. As a result, The Golden Compass is a shoo-in for Oscar nominations in visual effects and art direction.
Then there's the issue of the hardcore Catholics who have been shouting for years that Pullman is an atheist who's calling in his books for the end of Christianity. But it seemed to me that the bad guys in the film -- members of the "authoritative" group known as the Mysterium, are more like Republicans who don't like particularly like inquisitive people. In the words of the evil Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), they "keep things working by telling people what to do ... in a kindly way ... to keep them out of danger."
It's against the wishes of these folks that college professor Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) decides to go north when he learns that some dust has been found there -- dust being the substance that connects endless worlds together, possibly revealing secrets that the Mysterium does not wish to be revealed.
Just after Lyra is introduced as Lord Asriel's niece, he goes off to explore the unknown. Having just met the very well-dressed Mrs. Coulter, Lyra is invited to go with her -- each of them, of course, accompanied by her daemon (Mrs. Coulter's is a creepy gold-colored monkey). Mrs. Coulter, it would seem, is also headed north.
The film seems to have a story that could go in many directions. Too many directions: The narrative's foundations begin to crumble early on. It takes in the Gobblers (nasty men who kidnap children for nefarious reasons), the Gyptians (vowing revenge for those kidnappings), the Kingdom of the Ice Bears (where that fight takes place), the Experimental Station (so that's where all those kids have gone), and the Golden Compass itself, which "enables you to see what others hide." Lyra is given the compass and told to keep it secret; soon she finds out that only she can read it.
Before long, it's one adventure after another. There's no time to rest, and transitions are handled in a clunky manner, with the story playing out almost as separate chapters, rather than flowing smoothly. (There are a couple of scary scenes that might disturb kids 5 and younger, but violence is mostly limited to bullets and arrows turning bad guys into sparks and embers.)
Dakota Blue Richards holds the film together well, showing off Lyra's strong will, while still coming across as a little kid. Oddly, her best acting is opposite the bear named Iorek Byrnison (the raging voice of Ian McKellen). Kidman's Mrs. Coulter is villainous, but isn't as heinous as the part calls for. The rest of the cast is good but not outstanding.
Toward the end of the film, it's obvious that there's a lot of storytelling left to do. You wonder if Lyra will ever get to see some dust, or if Lord Asriel will figure out how to travel between worlds or -- here's the big one -- if the rumors are true about an impending war over free will. If you like The Golden Compass, sequels are on the way. Though no names are yet attached, the second installment in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, is scheduled for release in 2009. (Rated PG-13)