The Golden Compass (2007)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Christopher Lee, Derek Jacobi, Sir Ian McKellan, Ian McShane, Sam Elliot, Eva Green, Freddie Highmore, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jack Shepherd, Jim Carter

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, with Iorek Brynison, the armoured bear

'What you need is an armoured bear.'

You can't really argue with a film that includes a line like that. Nor, indeed, can you argue with a tooled up polar bear that stands 10 feet tall on his hind legs and booms forth with the voice of Sir Ian McKellan.

Welcome to the world of Lyra Belacqua, part street rat, mainly posh kid, an orphan (or so she's been led to believe) raised by Oxford dons amid the dreaming spires of an Oxford. Lyra's world exists on a plane parallel to ours, bound to it by a mysterious substance known as dust, and is like our world in many ways, except that people's souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animal familiars called daemons, the civilised world is dominated by a sinister Opus Dei-like power known as the Magisterium (helmed by Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee – who else?) and zeppelins appear to be the transport mode of choice.

Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter in The Golden Compass

Most of this we learn in the first two minutes of the film, during a somewhat ham-fisted voiceover that robs us of the delight of discovering these facts for ourselves. But after that, we're pretty much left to make of it what we will (although pay attention when Nicole Kidman's talking, kids). And anyway, it's Christmas, so let's not dwell on the annoying things about this film (mainly Lyra and her unpredictable accent) and instead let's revel in the star-studded, adventure-packed, beautifully envisaged fantasy it is.

Nicole Kidman (glacially gorgeous as the ruthless Mrs Coulter), Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Elliot – hell, even his daemon is voiced by Kathy Bates – everywhere you turn there's a famous face or voice. The finest performances come from Sir Ian McKellan and Ian McShane as the majestic ice bears Iorek Brynison and Ragnar Sturlusson. But then all they have to do is roar into a microphone – no sitting in front of a blue screen conversing with thin air for them. For the stars of the show are really the beautiful CGI daemons, which capture all the charm of Philip Pullman's original concept. Who didn't come out of the cinema wanting a daemon, and wondering what form theirs would take? (For the record, I think mine's either a whippet or an arctic fox).

Lyra's daemon Pan, voiced by Freddie Highmore

Okay, so some of the philosophy is glossed over, but in the end this is not a lecture, it's a children's adventure, complete with witches, gypsies, evil doctors and a magical journey to the North Pole (and, remarkably for a fantasy film, it manages to cram all this into less than two hours thanks to some judicious plot juicing). And anyway, to criticise The Golden Compass for playing down the full force of Pullman's anti-Christian message is unfair, as it's not until the second and, particularly, the third books in the trilogy that this really becomes clear. Like Northern Lights (the book on which it's based), The Golden Compass is exciting, absorbing and somehow strangely believable. I don't think it's going to replace Lord of the Rings in the top 100 trilogies of all time (though it gave it a good run for its money in the recent popular book poll) but it's still a great film and I can't wait to see the next one. I will show you fear in a handful of dust? That or box office gold…

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