'The Golden Compass': Dusted, By Kurt Loder

Where are Harry and Frodo when you really need them?

Here is a magical-mystery movie with everything money can eagerly buy: big-name stars, boffo effects, a story pre-sold in a mass-cult fantasy novel. The only thing "The Golden Compass" lacks, alas, is magic. And its mystery is a little too mysterious.

The picture looks great — director Chris Weitz and his town-size team of digital technicians have created a fantasy world of misty cities, gleaming dirigibles and intricate steampunk gadgetry that really pops. But in attempting to cram as much as possible of Philip Pullman's 400-page novel into a two-hour movie, Weitz — who wrote the script after nixing Tom Stoppard's pass at one — gives us both way too much and much too little. We're so pounded down by all the exposition in the beginning, and then by the stampede of daemons and bears and mechanical insects arriving in its wake, that fans of the book may slump in despair, and non-fans in simple indifference.

The story is set in a parallel world that resembles Victorian England. There's even a parallel Oxford University, where spunky little Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is happily ensconced as the ward of the scientist-explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, who's in the movie for about as long as it might take you or me to hail a cab). The free-thinking Asriel is a heretical figure to the sinister Magisterium (think the Catholic Church — Pullman did, although New Line Cinema really hopes you won't). Both Asriel and the Magisterium are obsessed with something called Dust, a shimmery substance that no one entirely understands, least of all us. About the time Asriel decides to take off for northern polar regions in search of the source of this stuff, the glamorous Mrs. Coulter (blazingly blonde Nicole Kidman) arrives on the scene, making a runway entrance into a vast university dining hall that's so blatantly Hogwartsian, you half-expect to see Albus Dumbledore go gliding by, possibly in drag.

By this point, you'll have noticed that all the characters in the movie are walking around with little animals perched on their shoulders or yipping around their feet. These are the above-noted daemons — advisors, protectors, stand-ins for the soul, you might say. Little kids have cute daemons: birds, butterflies, fuzzy quadrupeds of various endearing sorts. The evil operatives of the Magisterium lean more toward serpents. Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a monkey, which I found to be a stumper.

Anyway, Mrs. Coulter offers to take Lyra to "the North," as it's called (think Norway), unaware that Lyra has been hoping to follow in Asriel's footsteps and maybe get to the bottom of this Dust thing. By now we've also learned that a group called the Gobblers — nefarious minions of the Magisterium — have been kidnapping children, and before long we're further informed that they've been spiriting the kids off to a snowbound laboratory to perform alarming experiments on them. Lyra is enraged, but Mrs. Coulter takes a suspiciously sympathetic view of Magisterial undertakings: "They keep things working by telling people what to do."

I haven't mentioned the alethiometer — the titular Golden Compass. This is a nifty device that can tell all truths and reveal all that others wish to hide (if I may slip into the fancy-speak of the story for a moment). Nor have I touched upon the armored Ice Bears — and there's a whole kingdom full of them. Lyra recruits one of these enormous creatures, named Iorek, to accompany her on her polar quest. She also gets backup from another outfit called the Gyptians, who sail about in a pirate-y schooner. Then there's a drawling, Stetson-topped cowboy "aeronaut" named Scoresby (Sam Elliott — even his rabbit demon has a cracker accent), and a sky full of fierce witches armed with bows and arrows. I'm leaving stuff out, believe me.

Admirers of Pullman's book, who've invariably followed this tale through to its third-volume conclusion, marvel at the story's scope and depth of purpose. The movie strives mightily to stuff in hints of those things, but the result is mostly clutter and confusion. (In this regard, lopping off the book's ending, which had actually been shot, is something of a puzzlement.)

I'm guessing part of the fault for the picture's shortcomings probably lies in New Line micromanagement. Having grossed billions with its "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the company has surely latched on to the similarly tripartite "His Dark Materials" with visions of another corporate cash-wallow. But this one ain't that one. The first "Rings" movie set up the story with ravishing clarity: good Hobbits, bad wizards, evil ring. "The Golden Compass" (which reportedly cost $200 million to make, approximately two thirds of the budget for the entire "Rings" trilogy) buries us in so much desperate explication that the shape of the story never really emerges. The picture ends with the promise — or the threat — of a sequel. Given the numbers, and this movie's probable reception, I'm betting it never gets made.

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