Hogworts, Middle Earth, Narnia . . . what is it about the British psyche that has, over the last half-century, produced such a literary lode of fantastic realms, fantastic scenarios? And what has put resilient, resourceful kids - or hobbits (kids with furry feet) - at the epicenter as heroes?
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (a title taken from Milton's "Paradise Lost") isn't quite on the same mega-selling plane as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, but the English author's tale of a feisty girl in a kind of parallel universe U.K. has its legions of fans.
And now they have a movie. If the box-office gods look kindly on this inaugural installment, it'll be a movie franchise, too.
Let's hope so. A smartly realized adaptation from the American director Chris Weitz (whose credits include cowriting American Pie and codirecting, with his brother, About a Boy), The Golden Compass is set in a 19th century-ish steampunk world - a dramatic place of gargantuan zeppelins and sailing ships, intricately crafted clockwork winged insects, a slow-talkin' cowpoke (Sam Elliott) and a dapper Oxford don/adventurer (Daniel Craig).
And then there is the Alethiometer - the golden compass of the title, a magical doodad that delivers the truthful answer to any question asked of it.
Dickensian scamp Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), raised, in a manner of speaking, by her uncle, Lord Asriel (Craig), comes into possession of this rare instrument, thereby landing herself in the thick of an epic conflict. On one side: the repressive Magesterium, a body of dour-faced control freaks who want the compass, badly. On the other: various ragtag bands (and talking polar bears) who believe in stuff like free will, and will fight for the right to party - I mean, think and act freely.
In Pullman's books, it's the Catholic Church that functions as the institutional bad guy. Trying to dodge a bullet - and a major controversy - Weitz and the folks at New Line Cinema fuzzied things up, presenting a ritual-besotted, hierarchical authoritarian outfit, but one without any Christian trappings. Conservative religious groups are nonetheless campaigning against the film (I have the e-mails to prove it), but really, the way Weitz and company have reconceived Pullman's enrobed nemeses, they're less about the Vatican than they are about Sauron and his gang, or Narnia's wicked Snow Queen, or Potter's Valdemort.
Evildoers. And evildoers who want to suck the souls from children - souls, represented in Pullman's "multiverse" as animals, or daemons. Every human has one: Lord Asriel's is a snow leopard, the seductive, secretive Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) walks in step with a golden monkey. And the children? Their daemons change from one animal to another, reflecting the unformed nature of a child's spirit.
If Weitz's Golden Compass feels, at times, too crammed with exposition and big set pieces, the film nonetheless works far more successfully than the first Potter pic - the leaden Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - did translating its source material. Visually, The Golden Compass is dazzling, hopscotching from hallowed halls of academe to the Nordic tundra, from luxe manors to creepy, sci-fi-like facilities. The effects couldn't be better.
Richards, plucked from an open-call audition, is a find. The newcomer brings sparks and smarts to the role of Lyra, still trying to figure out who she is, and how her special talents might save the day (or days). If she's lucky and New Line decides to go ahead with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, Richards will have a hard time shrugging Ms. Belacqua from her life.
The Golden Compass *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Chris Weitz. With Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Nicole Kidman and the voice of Ian McKellen. Distributed by New Line Cinema.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, children in jeopardy, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.