film: Golden wonder; Philip Key THE BIG PICTURE.
The Golden Compass (PG) Starring: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee; director Chris Weitz. 113mins. Rating: ****
AFTER months of rumour and counter-rumour about a spiralling budget (EUR150m-EUR200m) and drastic changes to the screenplay, not to mention calls for a boycott of the film by the Catholic League, The Golden Compass is finally here.
With little competition at the box office before Christmas, Chris Weitz's visually stunning adaptation of Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman - the first part of the His Dark Materials saga - should prove irresistible to family audiences.
Writer-director Weitz has performed an impressive vanishing act with great swathes of Pullman's text without sacrificing the heart and soul of the book.
That said, he has excised too much narrative from the opening half-hour, introducing principal characters at a breathless pace, presumably because he is eager to reach the armoured bears of Svalbard as quickly as possibly
Emotional bonds between sparky resourceful heroine Lyra and her childhood pals Roger and Billy are gossamer thin, and the political tensions that divide the kindly scholars from the dogmatic Magisterium are sketched too broadly.
Thirteen-year-old Dakota Blue Richards, from Brighton, was plucked from obscurity to play the pivotal role of Lyra and she is terrific, holding her own against Nicole Kidman (in scene-stealing form) and a miasma of jaw-dropping special effects - literally jaw-dropping for one character.
All of the technical heft is necessary to fully realise Pullman's fantastical parallel universe, in which humans are bound to a reflection of their soul called a daemon, which takes the form of an animal.
For young Lyra Belacqua, who has been entrusted to the care of scholars at Jordan College, Oxford, that daemon is the shape-shifting Pantalaimon.
Together, Lyra and Pantalaimon get into various scrapes with their pals Roger and Billy Costa, and they spy on the scholars, overhearing a confidential report by her globetrotting uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), on a substance called Dust.
"Dust is none of your business," warns Asriel, "now try and behave."
However, the girl and her daemon are soon embroiled in mystery when the enigmatic Mrs Coulter (Kidman) spirits Lyra away from Oxford to become her assistant.
Before they leave, the Master of the College entrusts Lyra with an alethiometer, a so-called golden compass.
"It tells the truth," says the Master. "It lets you glimpse things as they are." He instructs Lyra to keep the alethiometer secret, especially from Mrs Coulter and her golden monkey daemon.
Leaving Jordan in a giant airship, Lyra embarks on a grand adventure that takes her to far-flung places beyond her wildest imagination.
En route, she forges remarkable friendships with a bear called Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and the beautiful witch Serafina Pekala (Eva Green).
The Golden Compass is an entertaining introduction to Pullman's writing, festooned with dazzling action set-pieces including a fight between two bears and a climactic battle by land and air.
Visually Weitz's film is a triumph, filling the screen with a menagerie of daemons against a backdrop of staggering production design (Denis Gassner) and costumes (Ruth Myers).
Richards invests her young adventurer with plenty of spirit as she battles the slippery Mrs Coulter, portrayed with venom by Kidman.
Supporting performances jostle for our attention, but the computer-generated bears invariably roar loudest, proudly suited for battle as Iorek tells Lyra.
Weitz jettisons the final three chapters from The Golden Compass (they will open The Subtle Knife instead) to conclude this first leg of the journey on an upbeat, life-affirming note.
A calm before the storm.
Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards in The Golden Compass