Andy Bockelman: 'Golden Compass' resonant, but heavy-handed, loses direction

— The new fantasy adventure film "The Golden Compass" is undoubtedly resonant in its deep messages, but its heavy-handed approach loses direction along the way.

In a world much like ours, human beings live with their souls detached from them in the form of an animal called a dÃ:mon.

The life of young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon Pantalaimon (voice of Freddie Highmore) is quite dull, according to her. She is stuck in classes at Jordan College while Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), her uncle and only apparent relative, travels the globe searching for the secrets of multiple universes.

Lyra knows little about this, but she is soon approached by a mysterious woman named Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to become her personal pupil. Before departing, she is given an item called an alethiometer, a compass-like apparatus which is meant to reveal the truth in any situation.

Although Lyra does not understand how to use it, it becomes obvious that Mrs. Coulter intends to exploit this new tool. She escapes her only to find out how important her golden compass is to the futures of all.

Richards is dynamic in her film debut; she brings to the screen the same blend of innocence and boldness that youthful protagonists of movies such as "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" have exhibited. Kidman is eerie in her villainous role of Mrs. Coulter, who has a treacherous agenda in store for children and their dÃ:mons. Craig is in fine form, although underused as Lord Asriel. Also included in the lineup of characters that Lyra encounters during her adventures are a witch named Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), aeronautical cowboy Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and armored ice bear Iorik Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). In less outlandish roles are actors such as Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi. Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates and Ian McShane provide additional voice work.

The unavoidable controversy of the movie, based on author Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights," has to do with the rather harsh criticism of organized religion that the story conveys. This is only part of the argument, considering Pullman's following books become increasingly more outspoken in their religious opinions. It is in this that it is hard to fathom just why the movie is packaged as the placeholder between kid-themed films "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising" and the upcoming "The Spiderwick Chronicles."

The heavy material hardly seems like something adolescents could completely appreciate. The design is impeccable in its retro-futuristic motif, but this is another plus that viewers of all ages may not fully enjoy.

Although it is impressive in many ways, "The Golden Compass" may not be suitable for everyone. Its overall theme is a subjective matter, but for those concerned that children will not grasp the severity of the argument involved, this is certainly a valid hesitation.

Now playing at the West Theater.

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