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Friday, Feb. 29, 2008

'The Golden Compass'

No beating escapism

The moral to "The Golden Compass" — a coming-of-age tale that takes place in a parallel, rockin' kind of universe where there is no God and people's souls are embodied by animals that frolic at their side and accompany them wherever they go and the general wardrobe scheme is too cool for words — is that fantasy movies can do without morals, thank you very much.

The Golden Compass Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
The Golden Compass
Dakota Blue Richards in "The Golden Compass" TM © MMVII NEW LINE PRODUCTIONS, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: Chris Weitz
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: English, Russian, Icelandic
Opens March 1, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Based on the "His Dark Materials" trilogy: an imaginative, philosophical novel series by Phillip Pullman, "The Golden Compass" plucks you from the yawn-inducing, common-sense world of the everyday to a realm of heightened colors and incredible dangers.

With Einstein-defying nonlogic, this is a world where — if not a deity — someone obviously gets his kicks out of playing dice. Thankfully, the results are more poetically chaotic than cruel, as portrayed by incredible visual effects (that rightfully won an Academy Award).

Thirteen-year-old protagonist Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is up to whatever trial is in store. The bravest, most uninhibited and gallant action-hero to come around in a long time, Lyra is refreshingly unencumbered by the Christian guilt (the kids in "Narnia") or Freudian hangups (poor Harry Potter!) that tend to plague other characters in the genre. Her mind is fearless and clear, and her heart vast. No wonder every adult with any power wants to recruit her.

Set in a parallel Oxford, England, where the season is locked into a perpetual winter, Lyra — enchantingly dressed in tweeds and velvet, tears through the streets in search of fun, purpose and adventure. She's an orphan who lives at Jordan College, and her uncle is a highly respected don, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who's leading an expedition to the "Far North" to study a substance called "Dust," that may or may not have a major influence on the human condition. Lyra likes her uncle but he's a bit of a rogue and has no compunctions about sending his niece to eavesdrop on his rivals' meetings.

Lyra has her own concerns: Children are being kidnapped off the streets and her friend Roger (Ben Walker) is among the latest victims. She has a hunch that Dust has something to do with it and decides to go to the Far North to check things out. Fortunately, the icily charismatic Mrs. Coulter (a stunning Nicole Kidman) comes to dinner and offers Lyra the job of personal assistant on a trip up north. Once there, Lyra discovers the children are kidnapped for experimental purposes, in which their animal souls (called "daemons") are taken away. Lyra is horrified; losing one's soul is a tragedy on par with death, since it means losing the ultimate companion and the very essence of oneself.

Mrs. Coulter is probably engineering the experiments, but she manages to avoid Lyra's investigation.

The adults in "The Golden Compass" are subtle and secretive. They don't reveal their intentions, and even when they do, the boundaries between good and evil are left murkily undefined. Accordingly, the children never rely or depend on them, and Lyra is smart enough to know when to deploy their aid and when to fight it out on her own. She knows that a common goal is the most reliable bond she can hope to forge. The world of "The Golden Compass" is ruthless, godless and curiously lacking in passion; the word "love" is never bandied about nor even sought. What everyone is after is "truth," a philosophical currency that speaks its value in generous deeds and acts of astounding courage.

Lyra is well-equipped with both.

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