MOVIE REVIEW- Quandry: Moral 'Compass' or amoral ‘Compass'?

You can stop worrying about kids growing up stupid. If they're able to follow the complexity of The Golden Compass, they're ahead of where I was at their age. It will probably help if they've read the book Northern Lights from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy; or if they're young enough to ignore the intellectual struggles and just enjoy the fight scenes and bears; or if they can overlook the raging controversy about how much of Pullman's professed agnosticism comes across in the film.

(It will also help not to see the movie, as I did, in a theater that can't get the sound working properly until after the explanatory introduction has been all but obliterated. And theater owners wonder why you'd rather stay home and watch DVDs than go out and pay a fortune for overpriced popcorn. They put their energy into concessions, which make money for them, not showing movies properly. But I digress.)

The Golden Compass takes place in a parallel universe that looks a lot like our own when the special effects aren't going to town. The people look just like you and me, except that instead of having souls inside, their souls take the form of animals that walk or fly by their side.

These souls are shape-shifters when they're linked to children who haven't yet "settled" (gone through puberty), after which they take on a permanent form. Our heroine, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is 12, so she's getting close; but in the meantime her daemon (as the souls are known), Pantalaimon (thankfully known as "Pan"), can be a cat, a butterfly, or some kind of rodent much like Pip in Enchanted. He's voiced by Freddie Highmore, who sounds so much like Ms. Richards you'll think she's talking to herself when they have conversations.

Lyra's a free thinker and a tomboy. In the opening scene she's trying to scare Billy (Charlie Rowe) into leaving her friend Roger (Ben Walker) alone, although later she has to rescue both boys. The orphaned Lyra is living at Jordan College with her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Later she'll be told her parents' identities under suspicious circumstances and believe it unquestioningly, even though she usually questions everything.

Lord Asriel is planning a trip to the Arctic Circle or thereabouts to pursue his theory that the "dust" that falls there comes from other worlds and might reveal a way to travel between those worlds and ours. He is opposed by the ruling Magisterium, which doesn't believe in dust or other worlds (or evolution, probably). While Magisterium in our world is a term associated with the Roman Catholic Church, in the film it's strictly a secular governing body, one that "keep(s) things working by telling people what to do"– stifling independent thought, in other words. Had religious groups not brought attention to it, sight unseen, by protesting before the film's release, the connection of religion to the plot would have gone over the heads of most viewers, young and old.

While the Magisterium is capable of murdering Lord Asriel to stop his exploration, they also want to take advantage of it to be able to dominate all the worlds instead of just one. This contradiction is set up but not explained.

Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, playing the 40-year-old version of Susan Sarandon's 60-year-old in Enchanted), an ally of the Magisterium, invites Lyra to go north as her assistant. Since her uncle hasn't invited her and she really wants to go, Lyra jumps at the chance; but she soon has reason to hate Mrs. Coulter.

Oh, that's such a tiny part of the story. There are also Samoyeds and Tartars, Witches, Gobblers and Gyptians– and Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), a Texas aeronaut who becomes one of Lyra's protectors. Then about halfway through we start seeing the ice bears we've been hearing about. The main one is Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), who lost the title of Bear King to Ragnar Sturlusson (voiced by Ian McShane). When they eventually fight, with Lyra as the prize, it's the biggest CG bout since King Kong vs. the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Lyra is armed with an alethiometer, the golden compass of the title. It cannot tell a lie, but you have to be pretty clever to ask it a question and decipher its answer. Our heroine is very clever.

There's a mention early on that the Magisterium's General Oblation Board is experimenting with the Intercision Process. That's something like circumcision, except what is cut off is a child's daemon. This is meant to spare the children the loss of innocence awaiting them at childhood's end. It's not revealed until late in the film, but with a plot this dense any information you're forearmed with is an enhancer, not a spoiler

There's a big, climactic battle before the film ends, somewhere short of where the book did. Instead of a clean finish, though, there's a setup for Part II (which may or may not happen, depending on the success of this film). The good witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) announces that Lyra "will decide the war which is to come." So Lyra goes off to war with Roger as her bitch– or at least her Samwise Gamgee.

Craig's fans who are expecting James Bond will be disappointed by the brevity of his appearance. Even Kidman tends to disappear for large sections of the film, but she certainly dominates the scenes she's in, looking like a high-class Hooter's waitress. The young star has by far the most screen time, enough for us to get tired of her, although Ms. Richards shows she's more than a one-trick pony.

The cast is loaded with the likes of Tom Courtenay, Derek Jacobi, and Christopher Lee in interchangeable supporting roles.

Director Chris Weitz adapted the screenplay, with studio pressure to avoid controversy. He doesn't distinguish himself in this genre the way he did with contemporary comedies About a Boy and In Good Company, but he gives us plenty to look at and too much to think about, and brings it all in in under two hours.

One thing you might think about is that our 12-year-old heroine endures more than just about any boy her age has in a movie, perhaps a subtle way of preparing the world for President Hillary.