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Graphics make "Golden Compass" worth watching

I look forward to ambitious fantasy epics such as "The Golden Compass,"the adaptation of the first book of Philip Pullman's "His DarkMaterials" trilogy.

If a fantasy movie is sweet, we can bank on whiling away a couple hoursof this dreary existence on their sequel next year. Even if theyblow, they're good for at least a wild scene or three, like in thisone when two armored polar bears whale the hell out of each other, orwhen Sam Elliott (whose mustache has probably killed more men than thedinosaurs) boats people around on his zeppelin.

That could be a recipe for great times. It could also quite easily bea recipe for incredibly stupid times that make you want to reach outand punch someone. With this movie, it's neither.

In a parallel world where, among other small differences, people'ssouls are externalized in the form of talking animals called daemons,Daniel Craig learns about a curious Dust that's appeared at the northpole which seems to be coming from other planes of existence. Hewants to go check this crazy stuff out (who wouldn't! Dust!), butmeets resistance from the Magisterium, the dogmatic rulers of theirworld who believe the Dust could undermine their teachings.

Craig's niece, Dakota Blue Richards, wants to go up north, too, andfinds an unlikely ally in Magisterium agent Nicole Kidman. Along theway, Richards discovers Kidman's in league with the mysterious groupthat's been kidnapping children -- including two of Richards'friends -- and escapes from Kidman and her evil golden monkey, vowing torescue her friends from the prison that's also up there at the north.

The bulk of the rest of the movie introduces the aforementionedtalking bears, sky cowboys and a king's assload of other dudes with astake in the matter -- standard fare such as flying witches andpirate-gypsies, not to mention everyone's daemon-animal counterpart.I can count all the way to 12, 15 if I've had some coffee,but I lost count of all the people being introduced around halfwaythrough.

Yet "The Golden Compass" isn't dragged down because it's got too manycharacters or several Bibles worth of backstory to set up, it's thateven with a full two hours of film to work with, few of the charactersare given enough screen time to become more than archetypes. Neverthought a bear in full barding who rules a kingdom of other bears whosmith their own armor could feel like a cliche? Well, me neither, butlife is full of surprises.

Keeping track of who's where and what they're doing isn't made anyeasier by a rushed, action-heavy plot that seems to forget about itsside characters whenever they're offscreen. I'm no movie-maker-man, but astronger editing structure would have helped rein in the movie's manythreads.

Pullman's trilogy is notorious for its down-with-religion stance,which makes it weird that it's even seeing the light of day as a newfranchise, the first of which had a budget of $200 million. If therewas much iconoclasm in the first book, its adaptation appears to havebeen neutered until we're left with a vague anti-bossing-people-aroundsentiment that could conceivably be applied to something as specificas Christianity if you squint a little and have heard about the sillyboycotts but is hardly worth getting bothered about.

For all this weakness, "The Golden Compass" is hardly a pile ofgarbage. It looks great, especially the CG daemons, which are almostindistinguishable from real animals. The sets are awfully neat, too,and though it's no "Lord of the Rings," its action sequences aregripping and exciting. Richards really fills out her role as a smartand resourceful troublemaker. The supporting cast is excellent inits limited roles -- Elliott, Ian McKellan as the voice of the leadbear, smaller turns by Christopher Lee, Ian McShane, and Kathy Bates.

But nobody but Richards' character has that much going for them,leaving us with a cool-looking world full of weirdos doing things thatlook strange but feel familiar. Maybe that's a case of First EpicMovie-itis, where so much time and space has to be devoted toestablishing this alternate universe and its plot that there's notmuch left for personality.

It is promising that there was no moment when I thought "Damn, thatpart bit the big one" or laughed contemptuousl and was beaten for itby my fellow movie-goers. Writer/director Chris Weitz never reallydoes anything wrong. But so far his vision, for however unique itlooks, hasn't captured the spark that's made Pullman's originals sucha success.

Grade: B-

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