A poor sense of direction

Nothing wrong with "The Golden Compass" that some of Sister Mary Ignatius' good Catholic discipline wouldn't clear up. She should rap the movie across its fierce little knuckles for violations against not church protocol but storytellers' dogma: too many characters too fast; too much emphasis on design and effects and not enough on emotion; too many hoary Brit old pros. (It seems like the whole dang theatrical peerage is on hand!)

And, worst of all, the wrong Dakota: Dakota Blue Richards instead of Dakota Fanning as Lyra Belacqua, an adventurous teen who leads a commando mission against a fascist organization's kidnapping plot and polar-brainwashing laboratory. Hmm, was Fanning busy? Or, smart and talented as she is, maybe Fanning saw through the overblown absurdities of "The Golden Compass," and politely declined.

In this adaptation of the first book in atheist Philip Pullman's anti-religion fantasy trilogy, "His Dark Materials," Richards, as Lyra, is quite an unpleasant child. She lacks the better Dakota's brilliant comprehension of the material and sense of thoughtfulness; she has no depth and no capacity to project ambiguous or contradictory emotions. While she's pleasant enough in appearance, she lacks "it" &

that magical penumbra the camera alone can define. And the scenes of her riding a galloping polar bear across the arctic wasteland reminded me of Michael Dukakis in that tank, for some reason. You just think: What is wrong with this picture?

Anyway, the movie is jammed with too much stuff. It's set in Pullman's idea of a parallel world, which is just like this one except that it's always 1937, nobody invented the airplane (lots of dirigibles) and it's ruled by a power-mad colloquium called the Magisterium, apparently his equivalent of the Vatican. To me, however, it seemed like a suburb of ancient Rome, presented BBC style. There's Derek Jacobi, a vet of both "I, Claudius" and "Gladiator." Shouldn't these old fellows be ordering massacres in Gaul, not trying to prevent Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) from investigating dust?

Craig is in the movie for possibly as many as 12 seconds; he's a university don who believes the Magisterium will use its power to conquer other parallel worlds, not merely the one he's in. The medium of this conquest will be "dust," which is some sort of to-be-explained-in-the-next-installment substance that facilitates travel between them.

Thus their target would be our world, huh? Not good.

The one good thing about their world is that it features Nicole Kidman all marcelled up to look like one of the Mitford sisters, though I couldn't tell if it was the Nazi or the commie. But she doesn't really do anything except, apparently, take Lyra to London to get dolled up for fab Bloomsbury parties with the swinging Woolfs (that Virginia was so madcap!).

That's about the first hour, and it'll put most viewers to sleep, aside from the film's portrayal of the higher clergy as epicene, plotting sneaks and spies. The intensity of Pullman's hatred for things religious, particularly bureaucracies housed in ornate buildings where single men mincingly express their fear and disgust for the little people, will be missed by most of the kids; most adults will find it both obvious and boring. Finally, even Pullman grows tired of it when Lyra uncovers a plot by which Magisterium thugs steal various kids and take them to the Arctic Circle. Lyra puts together a unit to go up there and set free the kids and their daemons.

A daemon is some sort of fairy &

or would that be faerie? &

affiliated with every being in this alternate world, containing their conscience, their subconscious, possibly their soul, possibly their identity. Daemons, according to writer Pullman and director Chris Weitz, are shape-shifters, sometimes taking insect form, sometimes cuddly animal, sometimes, when enraged, large scary animal. But when the daemon is gone, the kid's free will is gone, too, and he will be putty for the Magisterium. So up North, scientists are trying to electronically separate child from daemon.

It's very silly, and it never seems remotely real, with that dead sense of computer-generated imagery everywhere, those dramatic but clearly phony lighting schemes. And it just gets sillier when the witches and cowboys and lions and tigers and bears come aboard, oh my.

Two of the even sillier recruits are the voice of Sir Ian McKellen, as a computer-animated polar bear that looks like an escapee from a Coca-Cola commercial and turns out to be some kind of defrocked warrior king; and Sam Elliott, in all Old West regalia but flying a double-balloon airship of arcane vintage for its quaintness value.

As a manifestation of first-rate movie design chops, "The Golden Compass" is splendid for several seconds at the beginning of each new scene. Of dramatic virtues, however, it is notoriously miserly, managing to be both dull and confusing. I did like a terrific scene where two polar bears square off for a primal fight on the arctic plain, and I could watch Kidman doing that voodoo that she does so well all night long, but the rest seems a bit much.

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