New Line has greenlit production on its ambitious children'sfantasy project The Golden Compass following the casting of British newcomer 12-year-old Dakota BlueRichards in the lead role as Lyra Belacqua.

Production on the $150m first instalment of Philip Pullman's HisDark Materials trilogyis scheduled to get underway on Sept 4 in the UK in time for the North Americanrelease on Nov 16, 2007.

New Line is eager to hatch a world-beating franchise to rivalWarner Bros' Harry Potter series, and studio top brass will be relieved to get mattersunderway following a troubled development process that saw director Chris Weitzquit and rejoin within the space of 18 months.

Weitz left the project in December 2004 citing concerns over thetechnical challenges involved in bringing Pullman's sprawling tale to thescreen. In came British film-maker Anand Tucker, the director of Shopgirl, who remained on the project for barelynine months before departing over "creative differences". Weitzreturned in May and claims the process of adapting the screenplay has given hima greater understanding of the project.

Much also now rests on the slender shoulders of Richards. Theyoungster beat out more than 10,000 girls in open casting calls across Englandand has elicited emphatic support from the filmmakers and Pullman after she waschosen from the Cambridge call.

"Dakota made what should have been an extremely difficultdecision quite easy," Weitz said. "We wanted a completely new facefor Lyra, but I was surprised that any young girl, especially one withouttraining, could light up the screen as Dakota does."

"As soon as I saw Dakota's screen test, I realised that thesearch was over," Pullman added. "Dakota has just the combination ofqualities that make up the complicated character of this girl, and I very muchlook forward to seeing the film take shape, with Dakota's Lyra at the heart ofit."

Deborah Forte of Scholastic Entertainment and Weitz's Depth ofField production company are producing the story of a young girl who travels throughparallel universes to save her best friend. Bill Carraro is also producing andPaul Weitz and Andrew Miano will serve as executive producers.