Alternate universes, a truth-deducing object called an alethiometer (the shiny object of the title), armored warrior bears, external souls in animal bodies called “daemons,” a magical matter-forming property known as “dust” and a society-controlling religious body known as the Magisterium — these are all concepts that readers of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed “His Dark Materials” trilogy are allowed to absorb over the course of the hundreds of pages of the first novel, “The Golden Compass.”
The movie, of course, doesn’t have that sort of luxury, so director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) plunges us into the thick of this dazzling world and expects us to keep up. And while some of the explanations — and, in fact, the film itself — seem a tad rushed, “The Golden Compass” is a breathtakingly exciting creation of a thrilling universe and its characters.
Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards stars as Lyra, a young orphan girl living in the alternate-universe version of Oxford College. When we first meet her (and her shape-shifting daemon, Pantalaimon, voiced by Freddie Highmore), she is hiding in a cupboard and listening to an agent of the Magisterium fretting over the research being performed by Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who has traveled to the top of the world and found a possible source of dust, the existence of which the Magisterium denies, accusing its proponents of heresy.
Before she can take all this in, Lyra is whisked away by the seductive yet foully villainous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who’s secretly involved in the disappearance of many of Lyra’s friends for purposes too dreadful to imagine. Lyra, with the aid of the alethiometer, eventually escapes her supposed benefactress and is whisked away to save the missing children.
Her adventures soon include the participation of cowboy airman Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) and mighty warrior bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Sir Ian McKellen). The latter pledges himself to Lyra’s quest after she saves him from alcoholic servitude to the humans who tricked him out of his armor.
This plot may sound somewhat ludicrous on paper, but Pullman has created a logical, well-thought-out world that Weitz has brilliantly translated to the big screen. Sure, some of the CG moments look a little too CG-ish, and squeezing in all that plot and exposition into a movie that runs less than two hours leaves the audience feeling somewhat wiped out, but “The Golden Compass” takes you into a whole other universe and introduces you to its rules and logic.
Distributor New Line is apparently waiting to see how the film does before committing to filming the subsequent two books in the series, but audiences will certainly hunger for the rest of Lyra’s story once they’ve had a taste of it here.
The massive worldwide success of the “Harry Potter” series and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy has opened the gates for the ambitious undertaking of “The Golden Compass.” If the subsequent films are as good as this one, the “His Dark Materials” movies will be spoken of in the same breath as those earlier favorites.