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Dakota Blue Richards (right) is Lyra Belacqua, a girl trying to save her kidnapped friend, in “The Golden Compass.” Nicole Kidman (left) co-stars as Mrs. Coulter.
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The Golden Compass

Written and directed by Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Philip Pullman

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Dakota Blue Richards

Rated PG-13

Opens today

Picture a girl on the back of a polar bear, bounding across an endless icy expanse with the aurora borealis crackling above, its shimmering veils hiding intimations of a city in the sky. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a captivating exploration not only of new worlds but new ideas and the possibility of hope in a world with and without God.

While New Line Cinema’s screen adaptation of the first book, The Golden Compass (originally published 12 years ago as Northern Lights) doesn’t exactly live up to the transcendent determination and joyous complexity of the book, it is captivating in its own right.

We follow Lyra (played with stunning poise by Dakota Blue Richards) in a breathless chase from the stable confines of Jordan College, Oxford, where she reigns supreme among the local kids in games of make-believe and one-upsmanship, to the glamorous whirl of London in the fair but evil clutches of the aptly named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), to the beautiful and terrible world of the far north in pursuit of Lyra’s fearless explorer uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig). But soul-severers and other dangers lurk in the north and Lyra and her friends suddenly seem very, very small.

Welcome to Lyra’s universe, where everyone comes with a daemon, the animal manifestation of one’s deepest soul. Here, the mysterious golden substance known as “Dust” swirls meaningfully around every action with Penrosian aplomb, while a fascist Church called the Magisterium tries desperately to eliminate free thought and free-thinkers by any means necessary. No, don’t ask how this world is different from our own. Instead, watch out for two of the Magisterium’s more nefarious tools: Mrs. Coulter (first name Marisa, in case you were wondering) and Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney), a greasy priest with a inquisitorial streak.

Christian groups here and abroad have raised a minor uproar about the movie, which they fear will promote atheism and corrupt the youth. In England, where Pullman’s books have enjoyed popular acclaim for years, the religious criticism has been balanced by an enthusiastic endorsement from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps as a result of the controversy, what we get from Director Chris Weitz is sweetened up and smoothed down — which won’t placate the hardliners but does diminish some of the moral complexity of the characters. Fortunately, enough ambiguity remains to keep things interesting.

Lyra’s own daemon is named Pantalaimon. Too young to have settled into a single form, he has a character both distinct and endearing in every transformation, from luxuriously furry pine marten to supplicating mouse to hissing wildcat. When Lyra, all bravado, declares, “I want to go to Svalbard!” Pantalaimon’s fur turns Arctic white. “But it’s cold up there!” he protests, brain-meltingly adorable without a hint of Disney-esque fakeness. Better yet, Pan (for short) is not alone: every daemon (and there are dozens) is beautifully rendered, transforming seamlessly and utterly believable as they romp, fight, and die in clouds of golden Dust alongside their humans.

The movie format lets scenes like the fight of the Panserbjørne (armored bears) explode into overwhelming visual experiences, ones that words, however well constructed, could only attempt to evoke. Or sit back and shiver to the haunting grace of Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) and her clan of witches borne on branches of cloud-pine as they swoop into battle.

But the best thing about the movie is the young actress who plays Lyra. Thanks to Richards’ stunningly poised performance, there isn’t the slightest doubt why this girl is special, why the witches have prophecies about her, why she could save the world — or destroy it. When she faces down the Tartar hordes with their ravening wolf-daemons, when she confronts the insane king of the armored bears, it’s easy to believe that, even without the anthropic principle of fiction, she has a fighting chance.

The rest of the cast is quite credible, if less thrilling. While it’s undeniable that Nicole Kidman looks slightly scary whether she means to or not, Mrs. Coulter is only pleasantly evil, not captivatingly so. Unfortunately, Kidman doesn’t hold a candle to, say, Tilda Swinton at inducing sheer sexy terror. And while the creators got Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) dead-on, an unusually charming Texan with a hare-daemon sporting ears the size of, well, Texas, why did they downgrade his gorgeous billowing balloon of silk and hot air to a clunky boat with weird-looking silver gobs at each end?

And then, there are other minor flaws. The score seems always a register out of touch … a little too overwrought here, a little too mundane there. It made me wish for as deft a hand as accompanied Peter Jackson in Lord of the Rings. The pacing is odd: some scenes, while gorgeous, were slow (yes, that’s pretty, but I want to know what happens next!), while others shift abruptly with little explanation or transition (wait, how did we all end up at 10,000 feet?). This is unfortunate since it fails to do justice to the sheer richness of the background. The metaphysics of Dust, that elementary particle around which the plot revolves, is left woefully under-explained, while the workings of the truth-telling alethiometer (which looks like a golden compass of the title) are subjected to dry and repetitive pedagogy.

But no matter. Smarter than Potter, more relevant than Lord of the Rings, and a welcome antidote to the preachiness of Narnia, Pullman’s trilogy is unparalleled for sheer reckless grandeur. It’s too bad the movie ends before we can catch up with Lord Asriel and that city in the sky again, so we can only hope that it’s successful enough to motivate the filming of the next installment. And if you really want to know what happens next … well, you’ll just have to read the books.