"My books are about killing God," Philip Pullman has been quoted as saying, and you don't have to be the pope to view that as a rather provocative statement. Pullman's young-adult trilogy, His Dark Materials, which imagines a world much like our own, only with organized religion more organized than ever, is a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic Church's tendency to speak in the name of God, the edicts piling up like logs before a very, very cold winter. But God might want to call His agent, because He was left on the cutting-room floor in The Golden Compass, Chris Weitz's cinematic version of the trilogy's first volume. Everything's been watered down so as not to offend a single potential ticket-buyer, which is a bit like removing Darth Vader from Star Wars.
What's left is a fantasy film that seems too far removed from reality, a story without much of a theme, a movie without much of a point. Pullman supposedly likes the movie, and why wouldn't he? What were mere lines of ink on a page have been transformed into jaw-dropping visions of a world that not even Jules Verne got around to imagining, although he's been liberally borrowed from. And Pullman's whole notion of daemons - that each person is accompanied through life by a representative animal that serves as soul, conscience, alter ego, best friend and, of course, pet - is beautifully handled. But if we've learned anything from the Harry Potter movies and The Chronicles of Narnia, it's that the vision thing will only get you so far. You need story, you need characters, you need to gut the source book like a fish.
Like so many movies, The Golden Compass starts strong. We're in Oxford, England, home to one of the world's great universities, and it's the 1930s or so. Except this is one of many parallel universes to our own, so things are a little different, which gives the early scenes a charge. So does Dakota Blue Richards as our heroine, Lyra, who will save the world, not to mention the worlds, from religious intolerance - make that intolerance in general. It was so nice of Pullman to base his trilogy on a girl instead of a boy, but perhaps to compensate he made Lyra a bit of a tomboy, a kid who's always getting into scrapes and having to talk herself out of trouble. Lyra's also a girl quickly becoming a woman, though, and Richards seems just about perfect for the part, an old soul trapped in a young, rambunctious body.
She has a face that turns down slightly, the very opposite of cute as a button, and her line readings suggest an emotional maturity that the Harry Potter gang, now well into its teens, is still reaching for. When we first meet her, Lyra's scampering through the streets of Oxford with her friends and all their various daemons, and the daemons are a constant source of amusement and wonder, revealing things about the characters in a uniquely delightful way. But things aren't all fun and games. Kids have been mysteriously disappearing, one by one, and Lyra's uncle and guardian, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), is nearly poisoned. A scientist-explorer, he's just returned from the Far North, where he found evidence of golden dust-like particles that seem to connect one world to another. Basically, he's playing with fire.
Lyra would like to play with it too, and the opportunity arises in the form of Mrs. Coulter, an Ice Princess given a sultry chill by Nicole Kidman. Ensconced in a series of form-fitting numbers straight off "Project Runway," her hair lacquered to a spun-sugar sheen, Kidman slinks across the screen like a zero-degree-Kelvin Grace Kelly, cooking up sexual heat that freezes in her pores. It's a beautifully rendered villainess, and you only wish the script were up to the challenge Kidman poses. Working for the Magisterium, a theocracy in everything but name, Mrs. Coulter may know more about those disappearing kids than she's letting on. And when she invites Lyra to join her on her own trip to the Far North, Lyra accepts against her better judgment.
That's pretty much when the movie itself heads south. Weitz, who's never directed anything with this kind of scope before, manages to take his time in the Oxford and London sequences, introducing characters and building relationships. But that leaves a lot of book to cram into the rest of the movie, and it's just too much ground to cover, too much background to fill in. Lord Asriel, who will presumably play a larger role in the sequels, if there are any, largely disappears. And characters who do appear - Eva Green as Serafina, the Witch Queen, Sam Elliott as Scoresby, a ride-'em cowboy - barely have a chance to make our acquaintance before being shunted off to the side. Even Iorek Byrnison, the magnificent polar bear who's like Lyra's very own Terminator, gets short shrift.
The hairs on that polar bear's coat of fur appear to have been hand-painted on, one by one, however, and when they move it's with the smooth, yet unpredictable, grace of life itself. The Golden Compass is a treat for the eyes, but the brain may go a little hungry, which is a shame, given that Pullman's trilogy is generally considered the thinking person's Harry Potter. Gone, or at least postponed until the sequel, is Lord Asriel's disquisition on the Book of Genesis, which might have given this ailing epic just the shot in the arm it needs. Gone also is any sign that this is basically a story about sexual awakening, the kind of global warming that's been melting our polar ice caps since the dawn of humankind. Why is the Catholic League boycotting this film? In all the ways that matter, it's as prudish as they are.