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Go Toward the Light

The Golden Compass heads in right direction

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Directed by Chris Weitz

Stars Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman

Opens Friday at Edwards 9, Edwards 21, Northgate

Go Toward the Light

The Golden Compass heads in right direction

It's a copycat community in Hollywood, and nowhere is that more evident than in The Golden Compass. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The other-worldly virtues of the Lord of the Rings and the kid-centric structure of Chronicles of Narnia are dutifully combined here to provide an exciting action story with spectacular visual effects. Even better, it never feels as if it's re-treading territory that's been conquered before, although New Line Cinema (maker of LOTR) clearly knows what it's doing.

The intriguing premise gets us hooked early: In a parallel universe in which the souls of human beings, called "daemons," take the form of an animal that never leaves their side, a British Lord named Asriel (Daniel Craig) thinks he's found a way to travel between different universes; it manifests as a special dust and is located near the Arctic Circle.

And so off to the North Pole Asriel goes, and off on the spellbinding adventure that is The Golden Compass we viewers go. Our conduit is Asriel's niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a naive and rebellious child whose friends Roger (Ben Walker) and Billy (Charlie Rowe) have mysteriously disappeared. Believing they've been taken to the north by "gobblers," Lyra sets off to find them with Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who is not what she seems. Along the way, Lyra befriends a chivalrous bear (voiced by Ian McKellen), an "aeronaut" (think cowboy, only in the sky) played by Sam Elliott, and a flying witch named Serafina (Eva Green), all of whom have a vested interest in making sure Lyra and her alethiometer­—a truth-telling device also called a "golden compass"—remain safe.

The story is based on the first part of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy called Northern Lights, and one can tell that writer/director Chris Weitz went to great lengths to realize Pullman's vision. Every movie has visual challenges, but The Golden Compass has technical feats of grandeur that must have made the post-production process a nightmare. There's a fight between two bears that is stunningly rendered, and every single character's daemon is computer-generated and must act in tune with the live actor.

Much has been made of the anti-religious nature of the book, but the connections are anything but overt. Yes, leaders of the control-seeking governing body that's trying to stop Lyra and Asriel wear long, dark robes with splashes of red and talk of "heretics," but it's a stretch to interpret them as Catholics. Let's wait for the sequels before we really start excoriating the blasphemy.

Considering that Weitz (About a Boy) has never before worked on a film with such logistics and scope, he has achieved a reasonable success, although the ending is a bit heinous in that it's clearly meant to give a taste of what's to come in the sequels. Better closure to this part of the journey is sorely needed. However, the mergence of visual effects and live action is seamless, the story flows and is easy to follow, the performances across the board are solid, and the musical score is upbeat and reflective. It's a nice start for what looks to be a new franchise.