Ain’t that just like the Christians to get their knickers in a knot over nothing? Did they really think that New Line Cinema (the producers of The Lord of the Rings
film trilogy) would risk precious box-office returns and a cultural dust-up by preserving the anti-organized-religion bent of the source material, British children's author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials
trilogy? The Golden Compass
trades in the novels' evil Magisterium – a society-controlling organization meant to stand in for the church (any church, really) – as something just as evil but more SS-inspired (from swastikalike imagery down to McBurney's greasy, Adolf combover). The film (and series at large), inspired in part by Milton's Paradise Lost
, charts the coming of age of Lyra Belacqua (Richards, a dirtied delight), a 12-year-old orphan living in a steampunk universe parallel to Oxford, England, whose fate – which has something to do with a holy, multiverse war yet to come – was long ago predicted by witches. Yup, it's that kind of world: witches, gyptians (seafaring gypsies), and, most delightfully, daemons, which are the animal manifestations of human souls. They walk and talk alongside their human counterparts and don't take definite shape until a child's adolescence, which means Lyra's daemon, Pan (voiced by Highmore), skips breathlessly from a fluttering winged thing to a cuddly cat. Not much in The Golden Compass
is cuddly, though: This is a terrifying world in which trouble is visited regularly on small children and seemingly beneficent older ladies (like Kidman's Mrs. Coulter, slinking along like some Thirties screen goddess) would sooner serve your daemon to her daemon for dinner. Writer/director Weitz far exceeds here, in vision and ambition, the perfectly passable entertainments of American Pie
and About a Boy
. The special effects, with few notable dull thuds, are mostly spectacular, culminating in a breathtaking and bloodied battle royal between ice bears. There are significant stretches of talky tedium, more than a few “huh” moments for neophytes – especially whenever anyone starts nattering on about Dust with a capital "D" – and the ending plays abruptly, but there’s plenty here to hang a franchise on.