Free will is the object of the game in The Golden Compass, a big budget exercise in orienteering where witches and polar bears point the way to enlightenment. You'll have to look between the CG seams to find the original intent of Philip Pullman's atheistic novel, but this isn't the overriding problem. It's that writer/director Chris Weitz doesn't convey a strong enough sense of purpose. Thank goodness for the star presence of Dakota Blue Richards.
She is thoroughly engaging as Lyra, a young girl singled out in prophecy as 'the one' to save all others from some awful yet indeterminate fate. It all sounds a bit messianic really, except that organised religion, represented by The Magisterium, is a force for evil. Nicole Kidman does the ominous eyebrow lifting as a guardian of the establishment who kidnaps children to wrest them from their 'daemons' (the animal sidekicks who embody their better judgment). Among the abductees is Lyra's best friend, and so begins the voyage north to find him.
"MANY QUESTIONS RAISED"
Daniel Craig has little to do as Lyra's scientifically-minded uncle except hint at potential sequels. The draw is in a simple story of friendship and Lyra's journey of self-discovery. The line-up of curious characters she meets along the way helps to lighten to Pullman's otherwise dark material. Sam Elliot is wryly amusing as a cowboy aeronaut and the spectacle of Lyra being carried across the arctic wastelands on the back of a polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) will appeal to the child in everyone. Towards the end, some impressively realised battle scenes up the excitement. Disappointingly though, all this magic and mystery fails to lead to any grand unveiling. There are just too many questions raised and not enough answered. Approach this not as a lesson in the facts of life, just a bit of childish escapism.
The Golden Compass is out in the UK on 5th December 2007.