Who ever would have thought one of the most controversial films of 2007 would be a family fantasy film? Let's set aside the politics and religion for the moment, though, and take a look at how director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) did at adapting the first book in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. When I heard a year or so ago that a film adaptation of The Golden Compass was coming, my biggest concern was not the controversial aspects of the story, but the sheer breadth and depth of the information that would have to be compressed into two hours or so of film time. Much like the Harry Potter adaptations, an awful lot happens in the books, and you're not going to cover it all without crossing some chasms with big leaps and threading things together with substantial exposition. Nonetheless, Weitz does a fair job at piecing it all together -- at least, if you've read the books. If you're going into the film having never read the books, you might have to concentrate a little harder to follow along.

The orphaned Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) lives at Jordan College, where she was placed by her Uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Lyra is a free spirit of a child, shunning more scholarly pursuits in favor of running wild with her best friend Roger (Ben Walker), the kitchen boy, waging games of pretend war against the gyptian children who come to town when their water-dwelling tribes' ships dock there for trade. All the children live in fear of the Gobblers, mysterious boogey-men said to steal children away -- poor children, mostly, servant kids, and the children of the gyptians (it seems that in Lyra's world, much as in our own, no one much cares if the poor kids on the fringe of society disappear).

The Gobblers don't mean much to Lyra -- at least, she pretends they don't, but her uncle does, when he notices her at all. He does notice Lyra when she saves his life against an assassination attempt -- but then he takes off for the North to further explore the mysteries of "Dust" -- not the kind that settles on your entertainment center and knick-knacks, but the invisible kind that flows into you as it flows in and through parallel universes. You know, that Dust. For some reason, the folks who run the Magesterium don't like Dust, and have forbidden anyone to even discuss its existence.

A word about the Magesterium: in the books, the Magesterium is much more explicitly a religious organization, somewhat akin to the Roman Catholic Church. Although the film attempts to tone down the anti-religious elements of the story, there's enough talk of "heresy" and adherence to the will of "the Authority" to still get the general idea. In Lyra's world, the Magesterium controls almost everything, including the mysterious Governmental Oblation Board, headed up by the stunningly beautiful and accomplished Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a powerful, well-connected woman who, on a visit to Jordan College, becomes so taken with Lyra that she persuades the Master to allow the girl to accompany her on an expedition to the North.

Before Lyra departs with Ms. Coulter, the Master gives her a gift: an aletheiometer, or golden compass. The aletheiometer tells the bearer the hidden truths of situations, if he or she knows how to use it, and the aletheiometer given to Lyra is the only one that has not been confiscated by the Magesterium. Lyra doesn't know at first how to use the aletheiometer, but she soon learns that she has a hidden talent for it , and we soon learn that young Lyra is a special child, a child about whom there is a prophecy. On Lyra's slim shoulders, in fact, rests the whole future of humanity. With me so far? All of this is crammed into about the first third or so of the film -- and we haven't even gotten to the armored polar bears and witches.

The polar bears -- in particular, one bear, Iorek Byrnison (voiced beautifully by Ian McKellan), are spectacularly rendered in the film, and it's really from the point where Lyra meets Iorek and his friend, the aeronaut cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot, in a role he was surely born to play) that the film really picks up pace. I can't really fault Weitz if the first third or so of the film drags a bit and is heavy on the exposition; there is a lot of catching up the audience to do to get to that point, and Weitz had to assume that his audience hadn't read the books in setting up the story.

Visually, The Golden Compass looks fantastic. Blue tones keep the sequences in the frozen North, where Lyra (after she realizes Mrs. Coulter is not quite as honey-sweet as she appears, and makes a daring escape) and the gyptians head to hunt for the missing children, looking appropriately chilly. The big polar bear fight scene is pretty spectacular (and pretty violent, if you're a parent wondering about that).

Young Miss Richards gives an impressively solid performance as Lyra; she's spunky, she's fierce, and she captures well Lyra's particular rhythm of speech. I was worried about the casting of Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, but I needn't have been -- this is one of Kidman's best performances in years, and she is perfectly, deliciously evil. I was less enamored of Craig as Lord Asriel; Lord Asriel is supposed to be haughty, arrogant, and singularly focused on his work -- he is a dark, morally ambivalent character, and Craig is just too warm in the role (frankly, I'd always pictured Ralph Fiennes as Asriel, and I still think he'd have been a better fit for the role). Eva Green is perfectly cast as Serafina Pekkala, leader of one of the witch clans, and a key character throughout the trilogy. The armored polar bears, one of the best parts of the book, are one of the highlights of the film, and the graphics work on both the daemons and bears is pretty impressive.

Weitz and crew didn't tone down the controversial nature of the book nearly as much as reports had led me to fear; the Magesterium is there, with all the heavy-handed, "we know better than the little people" arrogance of the ruling body of a church-state; Dust is there, with all the implications Dust has in the books (Mrs. Coulter even alludes to the "sinful" nature of Dust and, in a roundabout way, the concept of "original sin"); the alethiometer is there, and Weitz does a decent enough job of visually expressing how Lyra "reads" it -- a difficult thing to express visually, but he does so well.

The Golden Compass is, overall, a solid fantasy film that will engage and entertain audiences. The darkness of the books has been lightened up a bit, probably in an effort to make the film more palatable for parents to take younger kids to it. Overall, Weitz has done a solid job adapting a difficult work for the screen, though I couldn't help but imagine, watching it, how it might have looked in the hands of Guillermo del Toro or Alfonso Cuarón. What toning down has been done won't appease the Christian Right, but then, the Christian Right doesn't like Harry Potter, either, and it hasn't hurt that franchise at the box office much. Whether The Golden Compass as a film will prove to sell as well as the book on which it's based remains to be seen, but it's a decent adaptation, and I expect it to hold its own in spite of (perhaps even because of) the controversy that surrounds it.

*Note: Although we said earlier that we would hold this review until 12:01AM on December 7th, we received permission from New Line to run it a few hours early. -- Eds.
categories Reviews, Cinematical