Sunday, December 16, 2007

'Golden Compass' dazzles with its cast and effects

**1/2 out of ****

The holiday season is upon us, and to the fray of fantasy book adaptations comes "The Golden Compass."

The film is New Line's latest attempt at making another lucrative franchise like "Lord of the Rings," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter."

"The Golden Compass" tells the first part of the popular "His Dark Materials" trilogy written by Phillip Pullman.

"Compass" is set in a 20th-century-ish England, one of many worlds in a parallel universe. In this mystical world, every human has an animal companion called a daemon that bears it's owners soul. As children grow up their daemons can change to different animals, while adults stay the same.

Twelve-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is the center of the story. With a strong-headed personality, she lives among scholars in Jordan College under her distinguished uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig).

The main events ensue when Asriel shocks the Magisterium, a big-brother-like hierarchy that rules the country, by finding a golden dust in the Arctic Circle that is believed to connect the universes together.

Before heading back to the Arctic, Asriel secretly gives Lyra an alethiometer, better known as a golden compass. The last one remaining, the alethiometer is a device that can tell the truth to any question.

After Asriel leaves, Lyra's friend Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped by a group called Gobblers who take children to the north for experiments to control their souls under the Magisterium.
Wanting to go after Roger, Lyra jumps at the opportunity to go north to the Arctic with the elegant and mystifying Miss Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a member of the Magisterium who has a knack of getting what she wants. While Miss Coulter is friendly to Lyra, she does have hidden agenda.

Flying to the north in a ship that resembles a blimp-submarine hybrid, Lyra quickly learns of the Magisterium's plans that Miss Coulter will carry out -- the power of the alethiometer, the fate of the children kidnapped and the war that is brewing.

Sound like enough? We are barely an hour in!

While Lyra seems to be nearing her doom, she learns of her secret allies -- a group called the Gyptians. The Gyptians are a group of freedom fighters looking for the location of the kidnapped kids.

On their journey, a cowboy-like character, Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) joins Lyra's campaign, which also included a giant armored polar bear, Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) and a flying witch, Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) along with her fellow witches.

With both sides' forces rising, the unlikely heroes, Lyra and her friends, prepare for an epic battle.

While "The Golden Compass" has its flaws, it isn't without its high points -- such as the talented cast and spellbinding special effects.

Pulled out of 10,000 girls in an open casting call, newcomer Dakota Blue Richards is the highlight of the movie. Perfect for the role, Richards has a surprisingly commanding presence and understanding of the character's emotions.

Last seen together in the thriller "The Invasion," Kidman and Craig add to the all-star cast. Talented Kidman shines again, giving an icy, villainous performance that is memorable. Craig is suave as Asriel, but his fans will be disappointed for his minor part. However, he is expected to have a much bigger one in the upcoming sequels.

With talking animals, flying witches, innovative worlds and attention-grabbing aircraft, the computer-generated effects are flawless, along with the CGI backdrop for most of the scenes. What will amaze audiences are an exhilarating fight scene between two giant polar bears and the final battle sequence that is sure to keep eyes glued to the screen.

Director and writer Chris Weitz ("American Pie," "About a Boy") gives an great attempt at his first big-budget action film.

While it is fairly well-executed, it isn't too inviting for ones who haven't read the book, with a confusing first half and too much story crammed in just under the two-hour running time. These problems will likely have some audiences not wanting to return for the sequel, "The Subtle Knife," expected in 2009.

Overall, "The Golden Compass" points in the right direction, but it is still far from "golden."

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