In the alternative Earth of "The Golden Compass," every human is born with a "daemon," a shape-shifting animal companion that's a cross between a witch's familiar, a Beanie Bear, and an outward manifestation of the soul. This is a rich concept, if fairly nuts, and for an author like Philip Pullman, on whose 1995 novel the movie is based, it's an excuse for grand adventures in metaphysics. For a Hollywood filmmaker like Chris Weitz, it's merely the occasion for computer animation above and beyond the call of duty.
As a recent convert to the book, let me be the first to say the trade-off's perfectly acceptable. I'm not sure those who haven't read it will be able to say the same.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. "The Golden Compass" is the latest blockbuster fantasy adaptation - a wannabe "Lord of the Rings," this year's "Chronicles of Narnia" - and it rises to that high-stakes challenge while spinning a weirder and darker tale than its predecessors. The movie's chief flaw, in fact, stems from what it does right: "Compass" visualizes the book's vast world with such rapturous imagination that you want to spend much more time in it than the filmmakers allow. At under two hours, the movie feels rushed; at points we're asked to bolt down three servings of plot before being hustled on to the next spine-tingling wonder.
And there's a lot of plot. The time period is a steampunk mix of the 19th and 20th centuries, and society is controlled by the Magisterium, an all-encompassing theocracy in which the planet is one immense, humorless diocese. (Some devout Christians in our own reality want you to boycott "The Golden Compass" as an atheist tract not fit for the children, but the book's less anti-God than anti-dogma and anti-state religion, and the movie further fudges the matter into all-purpose anti-fascism. Be careful, though: It's definitely on the side of free thought.)
Our heroine is Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), an 11-year-old orphan living among the scholars and scullery maids of Jordan College. If you've consulted your Joseph Campbell playbook, you know that Lyra is the sort of foundling Of Whom Great Things Are Expected, and she's soon caught up in the dangerous business of the Dust. What's the Dust? Damned if I know, and I've read the book. But it's pouring out of the Arctic sky through a hole connected to an alternate dimension - maybe even our own - and in the faith-shaking bureaucratic panic that ensues, children start to go missing.
Not the ones that anyone but their parents would notice: children of roving Gyptians, kitchen boys like Lyra's pal Roger (Ben Walker). A shadowy band of rogues called the Gobblers is whisking them away - but to what? Lyra intends to find out.
First she and her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced in his various furry guises by Freddie Highmore) have to contend with the glamorous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and her golden monkey, the latter apparently descended from the Winged Monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz" and twice as creepy. Mrs. C. is one of those sweet-voiced fashion plates who's diseased to the marrow, and Kidman implies the harpies shrieking in her skull with a glacial, Botoxed smile. Whatever this woman's doing for the Magisterium, you don't want to be invited along.
"The Golden Compass" keeps piling it on - shipboard journeys with Gyptians and visits from gorgeous witches (Eva Green), frozen battles in the Far North, and laboratories where hideous things are contemplated and acted upon. (Is this for the kids, by the way? Not the littles, but hardy souls of 9 and up should be pleasurably spooked.) Daniel Craig skitters down icebergs as Lyra's manly Uncle Asriel, and Sam Elliott thaws the film out as a drawling Texas balloonist with a jackrabbit for a daemon (voiced by Kathy Bates, no less). And there are the bears, of course.
One bear in particular: His name is Iorek Byrnison and he's voiced by Ian McKellen with a couple of sub-woofers in the basement. In the scheme of "The Golden Compass," polar bears are intelligent and warlike, and instead of daemons they put their pride and soul into baroque suits of armor. Iorek is in exile when we meet him - boozy and useless, like Dean Martin in the opening scenes of "Rio Bravo" - but Lyra uses her alethiometer to force the issue of his stolen armor.
Wait, what's an alethiometer? It's the compass of the title, a gift from the Master of Jordan College that allows those able to read it to know things. Sort of like a GPS device for locating the truth. In the book, Lyra has a long apprenticeship before she masters the instrument, but here she's a dab hand in less than one scene. (Her fugue states when she consults the alethiometer are a cheap touch, too - dusty, swirling images that seem plucked from '80s schlock fantasies like "Legend.")
Prickly fans of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, of which "The Golden Compass" is the first book, won't be happy with the way Weitz moves scenes around, gets rid of some characters, simplifies others. Less doctrinaire readers won't give a fig: The movie gets the book's eccentric spirit right, and the daemons are mostly marvelous (the CGI on the fringes of the action is less impressive). The climactic bear-fight is a thundering set piece indeed, and when it ends you realize with a shock that this movie has no interest in taking prisoners.
The book is, among other things, about politics - about how a child can grow into an understanding of the long game, of what to say and when not to say it. The movie's both less complicated and more hectic, an epic designed for a multiplex screen. Computer animation doesn't do shades of gray.
Still, "The Golden Compass" pulls you in, daft and alluring. Any adaptation of Pullman's fiction hinges on its Lyra, and in the first-timer Richards, Weitz has found someone worth following. Rangy and impetuous, with a sour, tilted mouth and big eyes that narrow with suspicion, Richards suggests the foul-mouthed street urchin and the future grande dame; she's not conventionally pretty, but she has beauties in her. Above all, she's whip-smart and curious - a real adventuress. She makes the "Narnia" kids look vaguely feeble.
The movie bats you about in good and bad ways, breaking free occasionally into the spectral awe we go to movies for, then screeching to a halt to download more exposition. At times you feel Weitz flipping the pages and dog-earing wildly, and that's a shame: This is a movie that needs to be lengthy and discursive, the better to duck into the back alleys of its invention. A visionary is required. This director isn't one.
Maybe next time. There had better be a next time, and not just because Weitz lops off the harsh final chapters of the book and ends the film with a whimper. With all its hesitations and half-measures, "The Golden Compass" kindled something this critic hasn't felt in years: a burning thirst to see the sequel.