Sprawling in both imagination and scope, and with the task of striking a balance between book purists and the rest of the cinema-going public, big screen treatments of fantasy novels are always tricky affairs.
Throw in anti-religious themes sure to upset any organised faith and you can see why director Chris Weitz had his work cut out for him. Thankfully though, he doesn’t fare too badly.
At the outset of the film we are told of ‘The Golden Compass’s world, a world parallel to our own, but where people’s souls appear as animals which walk beside them, where an organisation called The Majesterium control everything and of a special golden compass, the only one in existence, which tells the truth.
Lyra Belacqua (Richards) is an orphan at Jordan College in Oxford. Running through laneways and getting into scrapes with other street kids, she’s your typical female Oliver Twist.
One day, her uncle Lord Asriel (Craig) comes to visit and she overhears him giving a lecture on Dust, a mysterious element which has the power to unite all the worlds in the universe.
Asriel soon heads off to the Arctic to study the Dust phenomenon while Lyra meets Marissa Coulter (Kidman) and embarks on an epic journey of her own.
Along the way she makes many friends including an armoured polar bear, Iorek Byrnison (McKellen). Byrnison has lost his armour, which to a polar bear is much like his soul, and is reduced to drinking buckets of whiskey and offering protection to a small town.
Lyra uncovers the truth about the existence of Gobblers, who kidnap children and are planning to kidnap two of her best friends. Desperate to save them, she journeys to the North Pole.
The first instalment in a planned trilogy of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, 'The Golden Compass' is full of the Good vs Evil, Truth Vs Lies stuff that fantasy blockbusters are meant to be made of.
Unfortunately the first 40 minutes of the film are filled with explaining those necessary but finicky details which always seem more interesting in books. Once the pace picks up however, it doesn’t disappoint.
13-year-old Richards, the heroine of the film, puts in a strong performance with her portrayal of Lyra, while Kidman is excellent in her part as Ice-Queen, Mrs Coulter. McKellen, although by now a fairly predictable choice in a fantasy adventure movie, has the perfect booming voice to play the gruff yet forthright polar bear Byrnison.
The much-hyped special effects don't have a negative impact on the film and there are some truly magnificent shots of the Arctic, CGI or no CGI.
Catholic groups in the US have called for a boycott of the film, saying it promotes an ‘atheist agenda’. Yet, on viewing the film it’s hard to see what all the fuss is over.
Any religious links which the book contains have been stripped from the film’s version of Majesterium, the organisation which seeks to withhold knowledge of Dust, and co-opt 'The Golden Compass'. Instead it’s simply reduced to a metaphor for any corporation or hierarchical structure.
Essentially though, it’s a children’s movie, and a good one at that. Lacking the enormous fight scenes which appeared in 'Lord of the Rings', it still has the power to capture and enthral a child’s imagination for two hours and for my money you won’t see a better fight between two polar bears this year.