It's kind of remarkable that The Golden Compass, an adaptation of the first volume of Philip Pullman's epic fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, made it to the screen at all. Pullman's books take place across several parallel universes, but even though the first installment focuses squarely on one, it's a tough one to squeeze down to film size, and the film unfortunately makes it hard not to notice all the effort. Looking vaguely like a wonder-filled alternate 19th century, it's a world populated with witches and intelligent, armored polar bears, a place where humans share space and confidences with their "daemons," animal spirits with whom they maintain a mysterious, profound connection.
Got that? Good, because there's a lot more to take in. But where Pullman's novel takes its time unpacking all its concepts and building the daemons into a powerful metaphor for the human soul, writer-director Chris Weitz starts with a lot of breathless, spell-it-all-out exposition, then never lets up. We've scarcely met the willful young heroine, played by well-cast newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, before she's being whisked off to parts unknown by a mysterious woman (Nicole Kidman) who's all smiles on the outside, but whose malevolent-looking monkey daemon provides the first clue that she might be up to no good. More specifically, Kidman might be involved in subjecting children to cruel experiments in a distant northern research station, a plot at odds with the work of Richards' uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig), a scholar/explorer who has his own business in frozen wastes.
There's a lot to like about Weitz's adaptation, and while not all of it has to do with the fussed-over production design and relentless CGI effects, more of its virtues are tied up in those than should be. As if it's afraid to stop for a single moment of reflection, the film rushes from one lushly realized setting to the next, letting characters talk about plot developments between the occasional action setpiece. It's more Phantom Menace than Return Of The King, and the clipped pace never lets us get to know the characters we're supposed to care about. Things pick up in the back half with the introduction of the always-welcome Sam Elliott as a sky-trotting cowboy, as well as a noble, nicely realized polar bear voiced by Ian McKellen. But the film ends just as it starts to find its groove, and without committing to the skeptical humanism and challenges to religion that define Pullman's series. Which is a bit like adapting C.S. Lewis' Narnia series while only vaguely suggesting it might have some Christian parallels. Still, The Golden Compass does manage the job of bringing Pullman's world to the screen. With luck, any future entries will try harder to get the job done right.