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The Golden Compass

A child messiah, alternate universes and spectacular special effects rule this fantasy adventure

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Show and tell: Nicole Kidman (left) and Dakota Blue Richards
  • Show and tell: Nicole Kidman (left) and Dakota Blue Richards

At a time when religion increasingly wants to hijack secular culture, how can you not applaud a movie that sticks pins in the eyes of the Christian Right and argues that children should have the freedom to decide for themselves what they want to believe?

No wonder British author Philip Pullman's trilogy of fantasy novels, collectively called His Dark Materials, has so pissed off the C.S. Lewis moralists. In Pullman's world, the government -- whose ministers dress more like, well, ministers -- want to keep a free-thinking scientist (Daniel Craig) from proving the existence of alternative universes. This government, which is also the de facto religion, claims their world is the only world, and thus their theology is the right one.

Then along comes a new messiah, of sorts: Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), the scientist's wily niece, who wants to know -- everything. He gives her a device, a golden compass, that can answer any question. But only one special person can interpret it, and of course, she's the one.

Lyra's adventures put her in the company of an ideological dominatrix (Nicole Kidman), a cowboy/aviator (Sam Elliott), a good witch (Eva Green), the freedom-fighting Gyptians and, thank goodness, Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), an outcast ice bear (think really big polar bear, dressed in armor) who becomes Lyra's protector. Together the heroes set out to free some children who were kidnapped in order to be brainwashed into believing their leaders' central dogma (sort of like vacation Bible school, except for the vacation).

This is spectacular entertainment, with computer-generated special effects that continue to advance the technology, and with grand classical (or, in Elliott's case, classic) performances all around. Little English boys are puckish, but little English girls are bitchin'. So it's especially nice to see the savior of intellectual freedom carrying a purse. (Can you imagine Hermione Granger and the Sorcerer's Stone?) The book's appropriation of language -- daemons and witches are good -- is subversive, sort of how the name of Mister Rogers' "King Friday XIII" subtly scoffed at fundamentalist Christian doctrine forbidding children the right to make believe.

Director/screenwriter Chris Weitz doesn't skimp, but he still shoots more scenes in closeup or medium shot than he otherwise might, lest every scene require special effects. For in this alternative world, people's souls, called daemons, are not inside them. They walk alongside each person in the form of an animal who can talk.

This is a delightful concept, but it's also a fascinating conceit: It literally means that we bare (bear?) our souls every moment of the day. Each adult's soul remains one animal, but a child's soul changes species until her personality settles. (Lyra's soul, voiced by Kathy Bates, is most often a ferret or a cat, but sometimes a bird or an insect.) That's why, in Pullman's creation, it's so important for children to be allowed to learn: Knowledge determines who we become, and that determines the future of the universe.

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