Casting Nicole Kidman as The Golden Compass' glacial megalomaniac Mrs. Coulter is no less inspired for being obvious. Indeed, she was the first and only choice for director Chris Weitz, who adapted this first installment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.
A pity, then, that this casting coup is just one miss in The Golden Compass' comprehensive line of near-hits: Almost effective as the coolly fanatical, child-stealing villain, Kidman ultimately is a stray thread among many in a too-complicated quilt.
If there's a comparison to be made between Compass and 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it's a comparison that author Pullman — no fan of the "tweedy medievalist" C.S. Lewis — himself begged: Calling Lewis' Narnia series "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read," the avowed atheist set out to slyly dissemble that series' embedded dogma with his story of a girl's quest to free children from their zombie-like servitude to quasi-Christian authority.
Weitz opens the film with a voice-over introducing us to the "other world" we are about to enter, where humans walk alongside their own souls, which appear as pet-like "daemons." The daemons of children (dazzling, as are all of the film's effects) can still change form, morphing from a polecat to an ermine to a mouse in a moment. But when children cross the brink into adulthood, their daemons become defined. We know, for instance, that Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is a beautiful — though ruthless — predator, because he struts onscreen with a snow leopard at his side. Asriel travels to Jordan College, where his orphaned niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is boarding. There, Asriel appeals to the shady, suspiciously clerical "Magisterium" to fund his Arctic research into the source of Dust, a euphemism for "all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world."
Lyra, curious and bright, witnesses an attempt to poison Asriel. She becomes determined to suss out the deal with Dust when the glamorous Mrs. Coulter sweeps onto campus and offers her an assistantship in her swish London digs. Initially seduced by Mrs. Coulter's flirting, lady-adventurer vibe, Lyra soon discovers her keeper is behind a recent rash of (possibly Dust-related) child kidnappings, including that of her friend Roger. Lyra escapes, only to be kidnapped herself and rescued by vagabonds called "Gyptians," whom she enlists in her determined journey north to rescue her pal. Joining Lyra's crew is a fearsome, exiled polar-bear King (voiced by Ian McKellen), who later provides the film with its most spectacular sequence: some killer bear-on-bear action. Oh yeah, and Lyra masters reading the alethiometer — a golden compass that reveals the truth, given to her for no apparent reason before she left Jordan College.
One vague reason she got the compass is that Lyra could potentially be the "prophesized child" the local witches have been waiting for. But along with that allusion to a righteous child who will save us all, the film contains a head-spinning hodgepodge of ideas wedged into a serviceable (if harried) fantasy lark.