‘The Golden Compass’ Encompasses Fantasy Fans, But No One Else

English fantasy novel adapted for the big screen that is released around the holiday season is a formula that has worked in the past, and Hollywood tries it again with “The Golden Compass.”

Produced by New Line Cinema, who used this strategy with some success in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Compass” is the first part of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, which was written by Philip Pullman. The film also includes some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Ian McKellan.

The film takes place in a parallel universe where human souls take the form of animals. These animals talk, and when either the human or animal dies, so does the other.

The story unfolds when children are vanishing around England, with no one knowing the answer to these disappearances. Lyra, played by Dakota Blue Richards in her first ever full-length film, decides to go looking for the children when a few of her friends disappear. She is given an alethiometer, a golden compass, to help her in her journey. Along the way, she has to overcome Marisa Coulter (Kidman), who is part of power-hungry Magisterium, but is guided by the golden compass and Iorek Byrnison (McKellan), an ice bear who has been shunned by his kingdom.

Blue Richards gives an outstanding performance throughout the film, but the film comes into its own when McKellan is finally heard on screen as Byrnison halfway through the film. He steals the spotlight whenever on screen, both when guiding Lyra on her journey into the arctic and engaging with another ice bear.

Kidman’s performance was weak, to say the least. She was on screen too much and conveyed too little to the audience. Other characters from the Magisterium were better able to show the power and ruthlessness of the institution. On the other hand, Craig was on the screen too little, as the director Chris Weitz probably thought he was better fit drinking martinis, shaken not stirred. But for the 15 minutes or so that he is actually on screen, Craig is able to show off his athleticism, smarts and charming good looks as he searches for “dust” that may help bring an end to the Magisterium’s reign.

But overall, the film’s special effects are not able to offset the slow storytelling and hard-to-follow plot. “Compass” falls short of joining Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia in the highest pantheon of fantasy films. It is worth seeing if only for fighting ice bears and ogling at Daniel Craig, but the next two films in the series need to be far more entertaining than this one proved to be.