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<i>The Golden Compass</i>

The Golden Compass **1/2

We know all about folks eagerly awaiting, say, the next Harry Potter installment or the upcoming Batman movie, but has there been a franchise entry that people have wanted to avoid as much as The Golden Compass, the first of three pictures based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy? Christians have been on the warpath for believing that the film attacks their religion. Non-Christians have been furious because they’ve heard that the movie removes all condemnations of Christianity. Book lovers have braced themselves for a bastardization of their beloved text. But a movie is a separate entity from a book and as such deserves to be judged on its own terms. And on that level, The Golden Compass is an acceptable piece of fantasy fluff, a cluttered mishmash that nevertheless can lay claim to its own scattered charms. An ambitious tale set on an alternate world, The Golden Compass opens with an expository crawl meant to set up the story, but not since 1984’s ill-fated adaptation of Dune has a supposedly helpful introduction been so dense and occasionally impenetrable. Yet amidst all the yammering about “Dust” and “daemons” we can gleam that this is basically yet another tale about an unassuming youth who emerges as the only person able to vanquish the evil force that’s poised to conquer all. Top-billed Nicole Kidman plays the villainous Marisa Coulter, but the lead is actually Dakota Blue Richards, a talented child actress whose presence goes a long way toward keeping this story grounded. Richards stars as Lyra, the spunky lass whose devotion to her uncle, the explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and to her young chums contributes to her landing in the middle of a large-scale skirmish that finds the fascistic members of the religious ruling body fighting all manner of outsiders in an effort to not only hold onto power but insure that they eliminate the notion of “free will” entirely. Lyra emerges as the unlikely leader of the revolution, backed by such disparate characters as an airborne cowboy (Sam Elliott) and an armor-packing bear (voiced by Ian McKellen). Zipping from one adventure to the next, it often plays like a highlights reel from a multipart miniseries. Craig appears in two segments before disappearing from the story (presumably, he’ll rack up more screen time in the planned sequels). And Eva Green (Craig’s co-star in Casino Royale) flits about the screen as a kindly warrior-witch, but I’ll be damned if her place in the saga is ever properly explained. But for all the narrative shortcuts taken by director-adapter Chris Weitz (yes, he of American Pie fame), the movie still works fairly well as a high-flying fantasy tale for the younger set. Budding girls are sure to fall behind Richards’ sassy heroine, while boys will dig the hand-to-hand -- excuse me, paw-to-paw -- combat between two fearsome CGI bears (and here’s a rare occasion when ample use of computer-generated effects enhances the project rather than overwhelms it). As for the adults, they can enjoy the fine work by Kidman, who’s all slinky, silky menace as the purring Marisa Coulter.