Move over, Gandalf and Frodo. After “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, New Line Cinema is betting that armored polar bears and flying witches will be the next big thing.
Reporters at the Cannes Film Festival watched a preview of 10 vivid minutes of footage from “The Golden Compass,” a $180 million digital fantasy to be released worldwide on Dec. 7. The studio used the same sneak peek strategy at Cannes with the first “Lord of the Rings” installment in 2001.
Starring Nicole Kidman and James Bond star Daniel Craig, “The Golden Compass” is set in a mysterious parallel world, where people’s souls take the shape of pets — cats or snakes or snow leopards — who follow them around.
Kidman, wearing a blonde bob and beguiling 1930s-style gowns, plays a scientist and traveler. Craig portrays an explorer in the Indiana Jones vein — professorial in a beard and tweed suit, a change of pace from his incarnation as 007.
But the heart of the story belongs to Dakota Blue Richards, a first-time actress who was chosen from among 10,000 candidates for the role of capricious, curious 12-year-old Lyra. The adventure starts when Lyra’s best friend disappears and she vows to travel around the world to find him.
The tale is a screen adaptation of British writer Philip Pullman’s novel, the first book in a trilogy called “His Dark Materials.” Craig says he’s a fan.
“Like with (J.R.R.) Tolkien, there’s something about them that’s beyond the fantasy,” Craig told a small group of reporters in Cannes on Monday. “It’s not just about witches and elves. It’s a story about true feelings.”
Director Chris Weitz, known for work on comedies including “American Pie,” discovered Pullman’s trilogy while co-directing “About a Boy” with his brother Paul. He says he was stunned by the books’ imagination and heart, and he hopes to make two follow-ups if all goes well.
“There’s a very simple through line to a very complex story — there’s this child who has a very strong sense of ... justice and injustice,” he said. “Because a lot of things she does are selfish or self-motivated, she’s not a perfect child, but she does what she thinks is right at the time.”
Delicate, golden-haired Richards says she loved her character’s bravery and mischievousness.
“When somebody tells her not to do something, then her first instinct is to go and do it — which I quite like,” she said.
In one of the scenes showed in Cannes, Lyra is counseled by a flying witch (Bond girl Eva Green) and recruits an enormous polar bear to help her on her mission. Clad in gold-plated armor, he bounds over ice caps carrying her on her back — some of the best footage on show.