"That's some pretty fast work, Miss Lyra." So says an impressed Texan aeronaut to a young English girl after she befriends a depressed talking polar bear, inspires the bear to strike back against some church-based bad guys, and persuades the bear to join her on a quest—all, seemingly, in a matter of minutes. But the aeronaut could just as easily be talking about The Golden Compass, the film in which all these characters appear.
In an age when big-budget movies based on British fantasies tend to run a little long—the first Narnia movie and most of the Harry Potter films run about two and a half hours, and each of the Lord of the Rings films famously clocked in at more than three—this new film, based on the first book of Philip Pullman's sprawling, controversial His Dark Materials trilogy, manages to wrap things up in less than two hours, and it feels rather rushed as a result.
There is spectacle aplenty here, to be sure. Fans of the book—including those who disagree with the trilogy's anti-religious thrust but enjoy Pullman's obvious skills as a writer—will find much to enjoy. For the most part, the actors are perfectly cast in their roles, and the special effects are dazzlingly complex and rendered with just the right, casual touch, especially where the talking animals are concerned.
Some of the talking animals, namely the polar bears, are just that: animals that talk. But many of them are "daemons," or external manifestations of a human being's soul. In the parallel universe where The Golden Compass takes place, every person has a daemon, and the daemons of children are constantly shifting shape, from one animal to another; but when these children hit puberty, their daemons settle into one character-defining ...