Amid all the media foofaraw over whether Philip Pullman's books promote child atheism, deicide or anti-Catholic sentiment, one thing rarely gets mentioned: "The Golden Compass," the first book in Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, barely cracks the lid on the series' darker secrets. It's pure introductory adventure, meant to immerse readers in Pullman's richly complicated fantasy universe. He doesn't start lowering the boom until the book's final sequence, and since writer-director Chris Weitz excises that ending altogether in order to take his "Golden Compass" film adaptation out on a high note, "Compass" at least is fairly child-safe. It's more a gateway drug than a wholesale plunge into dangerous theology.
The book's tragic ending is far from the only thing Weitz cut. To get a densely episodic adventure down to two hours, he snipped out everything but the raw action, and the resultant breathless thrill ride zips between locales so rapidly that it's hard to find mental footing. The opening sets the tone with a quick rundown of the film's key fantasy components, particularly "Dust," which links alternate universes, and "daemons," intelligent animal spirits that serve as humans' externalized souls. Children's daemons are active, bouncy creatures that change shape easily and often, which gives "Compass" a dynamic, energetically chaotic look; wherever children gather, they're surrounded by a whirring cloud of shape-changing computer-generated beasties. But as children mature, their daemons take on fixed animal shapes that represent their personalities.
After that explanation, "The Golden Compass" tears into a CGI-heavy fantasy adventure that sends the protagonist, Lyra Belacqua (talented newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) on a Joseph Campbell-esque journey of heroic self-discovery. Four significant things happen in rapid order: She spies on a presentation about Dust that her uncle Asriel (a criminally underused Daniel Craig) gives to the local college. She loses her best friend Roger to kidnappers known as Gobblers. She acquires a magical symbol-reader, the titular "golden compass," which can reveal unknown truths. And the intensely glamorous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) brings Lyra into her household but quickly reveals that she's more evil stepmother than fairy queen.
These events push Lyra into a series of cross-country escapades, leading toward the frozen north, where she befriends a gruff, noble polar bear voiced by Ian McKellen. Meanwhile, a set of mustache-twirling villains called the Magisterium is out to maintain moral control of her society "for its own good," largely by performing hideous experiments on children.
The biggest problem with "The Golden Compass" is that it doesn't stake out enough of a unique identity; visuals, pacing and tone feel exactly like the fantasy segments of "Bridge To Terabithia," which felt exactly like Walden Media's 2005 adaptation of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which felt exactly like a child-friendly version of Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy. The formula can be brisk and exciting, and while Weitz has no experience with epic fantasy — his last film was 2002's cheery, lo-fi "About A Boy" — he handles the material well enough, keeping the action clear, crisp and immersive. But he's still following the formula, and it feels generically glossy compared with Pullman's original vision.
It also feels rushed, particularly in its first hour, when characters and scenarios whip by so quickly that most of them feel underdeveloped. But the story hits its stride halfway through, once all the players are on the board and they have time to interact. The pace slows to a more comfortable drawl once Sam Elliott turns up as an air-cowboy balloon pilot; like Kidman and Craig, he gets relatively little screen time compared to Lyra, her daemon companion, and her armored-bear friend, and he's more set dressing than significant character, but he's still a terrific choice for the role. Like the painterly compositions of Lyra's quaintly retro-tech world, the casting in "The Golden Compass" is picture-perfect.
And the film isn't really about the adults, any more than it's about religious philosophy: It's about child adventures and big action set pieces, and on that level, it succeeds admirably. There's a slight moral queasiness to the whole endeavor: It's difficult to miss the parallels between the Magisterium and the Catholic Church, for instance. And whenever humans die, their daemons disappear in a shower of sparks, so that every fight becomes a gorgeous fireworks display. Combat becomes so striking and so pretty that it's easy to forget the death and devastation that those Catherine-wheel displays represent. Similarly, it's easy to get pulled into "The Golden Compass' " sprawling grandeur and forget any questionable messages, or the more serious cultural battles to come if Pullman's sequels make it to the screen. But for now, "The Golden Compass" can stand on its own, as a standard-issue but still glorious adventure.