The familiar fantasy character of the feisty tomboy heroine gets an upgrade in The Golden Compass. This smart, streamlined adaptation of the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy unfolds in a world similar to but vastly different from our own in a time that's like a blend of our 19th and 20th centuries. The movie goes by quickly -- maybe too quickly.
You want the film to slow down so you can savor the alternate-universe England that writer-director Chris Weitz and production designer Dennis Gassner conjure from a millennium's worth of public monuments, as well as a mix-and-match of Victorian and Edwardian architecture and industry. We move from the brushed stones of Oxford to an art deco London without losing our bearings, so cunningly have the filmmakers filled out their vision with burnished wood and coruscating metal and glass. As the movie whizzes along, you wish you could learn more about this bizarre version of Earth in which combat results not in gore, but in sparkling clouds, and each character has a companion known as a daemon -- an animal spirit who embodies a human mate's soul.
The Golden Compass (New Line Cinema) Starring Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig. Directed by Chris Weitz. Rated PG-13. Time 118 minutes.
The Golden Compass
Rating: -- PG-13
What it's about: -- A plucky girl sets out to rescue a lost boy from The North with the aid of an armored bear and a golden compass.
The Kid Attractor Factor: -- Eye-popping fantasy, a world of magic and talking animals and epic battles involving bears and children.
Good lessons/bad lessons: -- A promise to a friend is your bond, and beliefs that can't stand the scrutiny of questioning aren't worth keeping.
Violence: -- A gun and bow-and-arrow battle, and a grizzly/polar bear brawl.
Language: -- Spotless.
Sex: -- None, despite the presence of Nicole Kidman at her most tempting.
Drugs: -- Poisoned wine.
Parents' advisory: -- A fantasy too complex and probably too violent for younger children, but engaging and dazzling for 12-and-ups, and certainly less harmful than the shrill Catholic League and Christian conservative e-mail campaign against it would have you believe.