The Golden Compass 

Fantasy adaptation is charming and clunky

Genre: Aspiring fantasy franchise

The pitch: On a parallel Earth where human souls manifest as animal companions called "daemons," plucky young Lyra Belacqua (terrific newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) uses a magic artifact to guide her to the frozen north and thwart conspiratorial child-snatchers in the adaptation of Philip Pullman's terrific book.

Money shots: Lyra's ally, "armored bear" Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan), is cinema's newest iconic badass, especially in his paws-and-claws duel with king polar bear Ragnar (Ian McShane). The otherworldly design features neato airships, horseless carriages and mechanical bugs. The horrors of a remote experimental station prove appropriately nightmarish.

Best line: "I am an armored bear. War is the sea I swim in and the air I breathe," proclaims Iorek, voiced with towering gruffness by McKellan (who was cast against the wishes of director Chris Weitz).

Fashion statements: As the icy villainess Mrs. Coulter, Nicole Kidman's runway-ready gowns give the film more old Hollywood glamour than any fantasy epic in modern memory. In the chilly climates, Lyra wears adorable knit hats and sweaters. Members of the conniving Magisterium wear dark cassocks with white collars and heavy bling, not like bigwigs in the Catholic Church. What a coincidence!

Body count: A couple or three dozen anonymous bad guys die, and though there's no blood to speak of, their daemons burst in golden clouds. With kids constantly imperiled, the PG-13 film is not for little ones.

Cameos: Christopher Lee lends the film some fantasy credentials by showing up in one scene and saying a line or two. Kathy Bates gets some welcome laughs as the drawling voice of cowboy "aeronaut," Lee Scoresby's (Sam Elliott) jackrabbit daemon.

Will your kids want a daemon for Christmas? Maybe. They're cute and likeable, but the film never slows down long enough to explore the relationship between Lyra and her familiar Pan (voiced by Freddie Highmore). Plus, they always look like CGI effects.

Religious subtext: The Catholic League has called for a boycott of the film, even though Weitz removed all churchy references from the book. Still, the tension between dogmatic totalitarianism vs. "tolerance and free inquiry" won't fool anyone.

Hit single: Kate Bush warbles the New Agey song "Lyra," the lyrics of which ("Two worlds collide around her") sound like she's reading the box of a Lyra action figure.

Better than the book? Not even close. Short by fantasy epic standards (Chronicles of Narnia is 30 minutes longer), at 113 minutes The Golden Compass rushes through Pullman's plot so quickly that characters get no time to establish themselves, and Lyra's dialogue turns into clunky running commentary.

And another thing: While they were changing things, couldn't they have given Mrs. Coulter a different name? Because you know that right-wing pundit/toxic loon Ann Coulter will just love claiming that Kidman's power-mad blond sadist is based on her.

The bottom line: About a Boy director Chris Weitz gets Lyra right, with scenes showing off her spunk and wit against evildoers providing the film's highlights. Overall, The Golden Compass proves to be a well-cast, well-intentioned botch that comes close but never grasps the true magic of the Lord of the Rings or the better Harry Potter movies. Just because much of the film takes place in the snow, The Golden Compass didn't need to be quite so cold.

2 stars

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