Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is only 12, but even she knows that doing what you’re told versus doing what you feel is right can yield very different outcomes. A rebellious orphan living as a ward at Jordan College in Oxford, Lyra belongs to a world that is one of many parallel worlds – unseen, intangible dimensions where humanity evolves with subtle differences. But Lyra is never alone in hers – she goes everywhere with her daemon, a small, ever-changing animal called Pantalaimon. In other worlds, one’s soul resides inside the body, silent and unseen. In hers, a daemon is a lifelong companion. But Lyra’s world is changing. The all-encompassing governmental body called the Magisterium is tightening its grips on the populace. Its dark work has resulted in a rash of kidnappings of children by a mysterious force called the Gobblers.
Rumors among the Gyptian boat people, who have lost many of their own to the kidnappers, is that the children are being taken to an Experimental Station in the north to be subjected to unspeakable experiments. When Lyra’s best friend Roger (Ben Walker) vanishes, she swears she will travel to the end of the world to rescue him.
Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), Lyra’s dashing, gruff explorer uncle, is simultaneously setting out for the same region where he is seeking to harness the power of a mysterious phenomenon called Dust that he believes resides where the Northern Lights play over the icy Arctic Circle. Desperate to accompany her uncle, Lyra gets her chance when the college is visited by Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) – a scientist and adventurer who spirits Lyra away from her life in Jordan promising tantalizing adventures in London and beyond.
Before leaving, Lyra is given a puzzling, ancient device called the alethiometer – one that is said to tell the bearer only the truth, if she can only figure out how to use it. A great war is coming – one that threatens not only her world but all the parallel worlds waiting just beyond the northern lights. A myth exists of a child who can write her own tale and who will play a crucial part in the coming war. Banding together an unlikely alliance with a tribe of seafaring Gyptians, a mysterious witch, a great armoured bear and a Texas airman, Lyra embarks on an adventure that will take her over sky and ocean, to the wilds of the icy north, and into the mysteries of the human soul. The cast also includes Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Tom Courtenay, Derek Jacobi and Ian McShane.
Based on author Philip Pulman’s trilogy, The Northern Lights, The Golden Compass is a film brimming with ideas – almost too many ideas for director Chris Weitz to handle. Trying to tread a jagged line between Harry Potter, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Chronicles Of Narnia, this one is ready-made for the Christmas market and will probably do good business as one of those rare ‘family films’ where adults and kids can have an equal fascination. The longterm plan is to adapt all three of Pulman’s books in the series – but this will be determined ultimately by the success of this one. Having previously been adapted into a stage play, the task of interpreting The Golden Compass for cinema fell to a director whose previous best was the rom-com About A Boy – a major leap of courage that may turn out misplaced by the studio.
The budget for the film was $180m – of which over half went on special effects. On that score, the film does have its share of eye-popping moments including Victorian flying machines and talking bears. Despite the whiz-bang moments that will undoubtedly enthral the kids – well, any under 14 anyway – it’s the scripting that causes much of the thematic bumps in the project. Daniel Craig still has those Bond muscles, and Kidman does wear a dress pretty well – but it is the performance of Dakota Blue Richards that holds the whole thing together. For a first timer, she acts her co-stars off the screen and does lend much credence to the old adage of never working with kids or animals. Overall, The Golden Compass is a thrill ride based on spectacular special effects. If you can overlook the poor continuity of scripting, this one of all about family entertainment.