Dir: Chris Weitz US/UK 118mins
A more well-tooled and expertly crafted beginning to a winter franchise is hard to imagine, yet it's this very gleaming perfection that may leave The Golden Compass open to accusations of soullessness and artifice. The perceived Americanisation of the greatest British children's publishing phenomenon since Harry Potter (the title of the
US publication is used over the British) has not helped its advance word-of-mouth reputation amongst established fans of the book, and the continuing, rumbling row with the Roman Catholic Church about its allegedly anti-religious subject matter may affect some demographics. That said, it's a terrific sleigh-ride of a movie.

Opening in the UK, Norway and Benelux territories on 5th December and then in the US on 7th December, The Golden Compass roll-out will continue past the holiday season and well into the new year, with a release date in Japan currently set at 1st March.A well-resourced marketing campaign will guarantee a high advance profile all over the world, bolstered by the continued co-operation of star power heft such as Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.Ancillaries and video gaming spin-offs, including a PS2 game, should boost the brand still further.Although fourteen million copies of the Dark Materials trilogy have been sold, mainly in the
UK, the film seems likely to appeal to those unfamiliar with its literary reputation, while perhaps drawing in some established fans curious to see what has been made of their favourite read..

The basic storyline takes elements from many familiar stories. There's the collegiate calm of Harry Potter imperiled by evil forces, the dynastic timebomb of Star Wars, the serried fantastical animals of Narnia, the sacred quest of Lord of the Rings and most of all the kidnapped children of Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang. Our heroine is the twelve year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) who lives in a world very like our own; its differences however flag up a parallel reality. She is growing up in the hallowed confines of a college; she is eccentric and unorthodox in her habits. Like a girl imagined by Charles Dickens she is prone to befriending urchins. Like Alice in Wonderland she is prone to pouting.

When he uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) defies a clearly malignant religious orthodoxy known as the 'Magisterium' by going on a quest to the North Pole to find other parallel worlds, Lyra finds herself in secret possession of a banned object known as an alethiometer or Golden Compass. She learns to use this mysterious object and it helps her on her journey after she escapes from the sinister clutches of arch-conservative Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and journeys to the North Pole to find her father, find the crack between worlds and find her urchin friend who has been kidnapped, alongside many other children, and sent to a kind of futuristic re-programming centre. She is aided in her adventure by an armored polar bear wearily voiced by Ian McKellen.

The most original aspect of the Philip Pullman universe is the role of daemons - animal familiars that shadows their owner and in their shape represent that persons inner essence. Useful for screenwriters seeking an easy way into expositional dialogue, it's still rather a give-away when the supposedly 'ambiguous' Mrs Coulter sports an evil ape for company: he looks as grizzled, pungent and alarming as a familiar from a Victorian ghost-story.

Both Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are fine in their respective roles, Craig's scenes in the arctic, where he's dodging sniper fire, appears deliberately filmed to echo a James Bond film he never starred in. Kidman, always best when neat and evil, breathes a kind of glacial intent. But the star here is the discovery, Dakota Blue Richards, who seems to balance ladylike imperiousness with a taste for occasional deceit and tomboyish adventure.

Technically the film is a heart-stopping marvel, and director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) has done wonders in getting a team together - especially since director Anand Tucker walked on the project at its early stages and the film did not seem especially well-omened. Design and special effects are state-of-the-art and the music by Alexandre Desplat is above-average for this kind of family film.

Artfully contrived to take up the late-year holiday slot left empty by the conclusion of New Line's own Lord of the Rings and the lagged scheduling of Harry Potter and Narnia follow-ups, some may baulk at its chilly tone and (admittedly tiny) moments of really quite alarming violence. But it looks snowy, beautiful - a real winter wonderland. And it has a menagerie of talking animals. For much of its audience, no-one really could ask for more.

Production Companies/backers
New Line Cinema (US)
Ingenious Film Partners (UK)
Scholastic (US)
Depth of Field (US)

Deborah Forte
Bill Carraro

Executive Producers
Bob Shaye
Michael Lynne
Toby Emmerich
Mark Ordesky
Ileen Maisel
Andrew Miano
Paul Weitz

Henry Braham

Production design
Dennis Gassner

Peter Honess
Anne V. Coates
Kevin Tent

Screenplay by
Chris Weitz
based on the book Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Alexander Desplat

Main cast:
Nicole Kidman
Dakota Blue Richards
Daniel Craig
Sam Elliott
Eva Green
Tom Courtenay
Derek Jacobi
Christopher Lee
Clare Higgins
Ben Walker
Simon McBurney
With voices by
Ian McKellen
Ian McShane
Freddie Highmore
Kathy Bates
Kristin Scott Thomas