Another holiday movie season, another fantastic mythological universe to contend with. This time, it’s the world — or multiple parallel worlds — of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, the first installment of which is “The Golden Compass,” or “Northern Lights” in its original 1995 British publication. New Line’s bid for another “Lord of the Rings” bonanza kicks off with writer-director Chris Weitz’s impressively rendered but oddly uninviting adventure about a chosen girl’s momentous struggle against insidious forces that would extinguish free will. Visual splendor and scent of a franchise should lure considerable crowds, especially internationally, although it’s doubtful “Compass” will find a B.O. path anywhere near “Narnia,” much less Middle-earth.
A sensation in the U.K., although less so Stateside, Pullman’s epic is grounded in a land very much like England, with an expedition to the arctic stretches of Norway. But the work more broadly concerns the war between a rational, scientific domain and the monolithic oppression exercised by the power-mad Magisterium, a hierarchical order intent upon claiming the souls of all children. It’s this undisguised anti-religious theme that has numerous groups in a lather, but perhaps more of an issue for some auds will be the film’s lack of exciting uplift and the almost unrelievedly nasty treatment of the young characters by a host of aggressively unpleasant elders.
Front and center is Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old orphan who has enjoyed the privilege of being raised at the august Jordan College. Brown-haired and with bit of a wild edge, Richards has an unusual presence for a tweeny leading lady, but certain questions immediately present themselves: If Lyra has spent her entire life in this rarefied academic environment, why does she, like her rough-and-tumble mates and best friend Roger (Ben Walker), speak with a sort of mild working-class accent and bad grammar? Although she’s called an untamed rebel, her status within the institution and her connections with those around her are not well fixed at the outset.
To the horror of the Magisterium elite, Lyra’s distinguished uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), has discovered evidence in the Arctic Circle of golden dust that might establish a mystical connection between the many imagined parallel worlds. Lyra also becomes the secret recipient of the last remaining Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, a device that can provide the true answer to any question.
When Roger vanishes, Lyra jumps at the chance to go north, where abducted kids have purportedly been taken, with the shimmering Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), whose overly solicitous manner with Lyra masks an unfriendly agenda. Off they fly, above a fanciful London aboard an even more fanciful flying ship that resembles a combination of a Zeppelin and Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.
A distinguishing feature of Pullman’s world is that every human being has an animal companion, called a daemon, that often verbally or physically expresses what’s going on inside that person. With children, including Lyra, the animal frequently changes species to reflect the unsettled nature of young personalities, whereas adults’ daemons are fixed. This conceit can produce comic results when two people come into conflict and their respective daemons act it out; unusually for an ostensibly youth-oriented film, the critters are scarcely used to cutesy effect.
To its credit, “The Golden Compass” panders hardly at all in the usual kidpic ways. In fact, what Lyra finds the kidnapped children subjected to in the far north is little short of torture.
To battle the forces of evil, Lyra enlists a diverse collection of allies, among them cowboy aviator Lee Scorsesby (Sam Elliott in typically iconic form), friendly flying witch Serafina (Eva Green), some vagabonds called gyptians and, best of all, a mighty white bear named Iorek.
Pic’s first great set piece is a fight to the death between Iorek and the North’s bear king. Voicing these two warriors, respectively, Ian McKellen and Ian McShane try to out-baritone one another as their armored CGI counterparts roar, paw and bite until only one is left standing in a genuinely exciting sequence.
Soon thereafter comes a big, chaotic battle on ice involving multiple factions which, if not quite of “Rings”-like proportions, still packs a significant punch. Conclusion settles the drama’s pressing matters for the moment, which reps a departure from the tome’s cliffhanger ending, a choice perhaps made because New Line, unlike with “Rings,” is waiting to gauge the reaction to “Compass” before proceeding with the next installment.
Weitz (“About a Boy”), who has never directed a film with anything like these logistics before, is saddled with conveying loads of exposition but handles the big scenes competently. Still, the prevailing tone is cold, which has nothing to do with the frigid settings of the second half, and the pic doesn’t invite the viewer to enthusiastically enter into this new dramatic realm.
Evoking the technological and sartorial world of the 1930s, the visuals, decked out with almost constant CGI adornments, provide a constant feast for the eyes. Creatures, especially the bears, are strongly rendered, and the enterprise lacks for little in production values.
Kidman’s Mrs. Coulter reps a problem in that her contradictory intentions can’t really be sorted out; she’s clearly up to no good, but she also has genuine reasons for wanting to be close to Lyra that make her obvious deception annoying. Kidman herself seems unduly brittle and unsettled under her superficial poise and elegant duds.
Craig has very little to do after his preliminaries, although presumably his role would come to the fore in later editions. Among the villainous Magisterium elders, Simon McBurney cuts the most entertainingly odious figure.
As for Richards, only time will tell if her characterization will grow beyond the willful, somewhat impatient girl who quickly adjusts to having others do her bidding. Young thesp has something going for her, but she, like the film, does not engender ready capitulation.
Alexandre Desplat’s active score, while not his most distinctive, remains above the norm for this sort of project.