Thursday, December 6, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Golden Compass" loses its bearings

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars

"The Golden Compass," with Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Daniel Craig. Written and directed by Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Philip Pullman. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence. Showtimes.

The film version of Philip Pullman's novel "The Golden Compass," the first in the author's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, has been many years in the making; a recent New York Times story detailed its several changes of screenwriter and director, and the vast sums spent (a reported $180 million) to bring it to the screen. Now finally completed, under the imprint of writer/director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy"), the result feels a bit anticlimactic. It's a big, handsome movie, with impeccable special effects and some truly impressive armored bears, but it has a by-the-numbers feel to it. The anti-organized-religion theology of the books (Pullman has described his trilogy as the moral opposite of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series) has been carefully removed; what remains is a moderately engaging adventure.

Weitz has culled most of the book's major events (though he ends the movie long before the book ends, leaving out Part III) and meticulously organized the complex story into an under-two-hour script. It gallops along gamely, like those noble bears, but never finds wings on its feet. At its center is 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a bright child with a determined chin and a flinty voice. She lives on a British college campus in a faintly recognizable world very different from our own, in which people's souls walk with them as visible spirits in the shape of animals (called daemons), and in which children keep disappearing. Lyra, in the manner of all heroic children of literature, is called upon to venture into the frozen Northlands to find them — discovering a horrific conspiracy against which she and other good souls must battle.

All of the performances are effective: Nicole Kidman is icily charming as the sinister, beautiful Mrs. Coulter, who takes a mysterious interest in Lyra (she had, notes the tomboyish Lyra in the book, "the smell of glamour"); Sam Elliott brings his meat-and-potatoes bluster to the role of Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby; and Daniel Craig makes his few moments on screen slyly tantalizing as Lyra's enigmatic uncle, the scientist Lord Asriel. But it's young Richards who must carry the film, and she's asked to do so with a script that gives her only one note: resoluteness. She gives a performance that's poised beyond her years, but Weitz's workmanlike script doesn't find anything magical for her.

Iorek Byrnison, the bear king who joins forces with Lyra, is wonderfully rendered, and the scenes in which Lyra rides her galloping friend through vast fields of snow come as close as "The Golden Compass" gets to cinematic excitement. But despite some truly unnerving developments (a scene involving the electrocution of a child is genuinely upsetting), Weitz's movie remains ultimately remote. It ends mid-adventure, so blatantly setting the stage for a sequel that the whole thing suddenly feels like a preamble. Those who haven't read the book may wonder what all the fuss is about; those who have may wish to return to it, to find the thrill in storytelling that this movie never quite captures.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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