I loved the book The Golden Compass, and the movie did not disappoint at all. Just like watching Harry Potter come to life and seeing the wonder that is Quidditch on the screen, The Golden Compass shows us daemons, ice bears and, best of all, Lyra Belacqua. Dakota Blue Richards was wonderfully cast as Lyra, the tough, rule-breaking tomboy who seeks adventure. Richards does not cultivate anything like the cutesy little girls usually onscreen. She's tough, but scared of the adults, loyal to her friends, compassionate to an armored bear's plight, and brave enough to lie to the bear king. She and her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced perfectly by Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) go to live with the icy power behind "the Magisterium's" project to fight "dust", Nicole Kidman's "Mrs. Coulter". Kidman is carefully constructed, with beautiful costumes and a mannered demeanor that makes you afraid the minute it disappears. Her role is trimmed considerably from the book, and the fear she inspires is never realized, but with the obvious openings for sequels, she'll probably get the chance. Daniel Craig also only appears onscreen for a few scenes, so selling them as the stars is a little misleading. However, Lyra (Richards) more than steals the screen, and with Sam Elliot (as aeronaut Lee Scoresby) and Iorek Byrinson, the armored bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) supporting her throughout the movie, their charming interactions make it obvious why they will support her side in the fights to come. The movie is trimmed quite a bit, but it's mostly Pullman's dense descriptive inner monologues that don't make it, and the movie is the better for it. While I agree with critics that the initial voiceover explaining the alternate world could have been better integrated into the story, rather than coming in a heap at the beginning, for once a great movie will only be improved by reading the book AFTER the movie. My favorite comment by a critic, Manohla Dargis: "I would have liked to spend some quality time with Lyra’s friend and protector, the warrior bear Iorek Byrnison, a gorgeous creature whose ferocity is, alas, tempered by his resemblance to some familiar cuddly polar bears. It is, I discovered, hard to keep your mind off the concession stand when you are waiting for Iorek to offer Lyra a Coke." Overall, wonderful casting and a terrific skeleton upon which to build the next great trilogy.
Addendum: After thinking about it for a day, I liked the movie more. Also, I didn't comment on the religious kerfuffle that's been surrounding the movie. Yes, there are metaphysical and spiritual elements to the book, some of which are portrayed negatively (but there have been all kinds of terrible religious leaders, and religion wasn't the problem). And the movie is about extremism and totalitarianism and the State being involved in its people's morality and thoughts, not its religion or any aspect of who or what God is or does. It does not indict religion, but rather extremists who want to control.
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