(CNN) -- There's plenty riding on "The Golden Compass," a $180 million fantasy family film based on the first book in author Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.
Dakota Blue Richards plays Lyra, the heroine of "The Golden Compass."
The studio, New Line, seems to be positioning it as a girl-friendly "Lord of the Rings" -- though more in hope than expectation. This time the studio (which strategically gambled on three Tolkien movies at once) is hedging its bets at least until the opening grosses are in.
New Line's hesitation is understandable (particularly given the criticism Pullman's work has received from some religious quarters), but it hurts the movie, which is both too faithful and too timid.
Still, the film manages to convey the wonder and promise of Pullman's gripping coming-of-age story. Watch why some Christian groups are attacking the film »
The visual design is splendid. The familiar and the strange sit side by side: Pullman's alternate universe of venerable Oxford colleges, a neo-Dickensian London and the frozen north is at once old and new. There's a wonderful shot of London reflected in the window of an airship's viewing deck, the London skyscraper nicknamed "the Gherkin" protruding among a cluster of computer-generated gothic spires.
Early 20th-century art deco and nouveau fashions come with a contemporary twist, and industrial-age technology includes a paddle steamer with sails, and "spy flies" -- a steampunk variation on the insect-like surveillance tools the Pentagon is rumored to be developing.
Then there are the daemons: a specific "pet" for each man, woman and child in the movie, an animal form for the soul itself. Nicole Kidman's glamorous but untrustworthy Mrs. Coulter gets a golden monkey, while Daniel Craig's dashing lord, explorer Lord Asriel, is kitted out with a superb big cat. Watch Kidman and Craig delve into the film's controversy »
Sneaky Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney), representative of the authoritarian "Magisterium," is handily supplied with an insect.
But writer-director Chris Weitz (hardly a natural fit on the back of "Down to Earth" and "About a Boy") doesn't make the most of these riches. I'd figure his daemon for a hare. The movie clocks in at a trim 118 minutes -- about 30 minutes shorter than "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," 40 minutes shorter than "The Philosopher's Stone," and a full hour shorter than "The Fellowship of the Ring" -- and I don't say this often, but it should have been longer.
Weitz -- or more likely, New Line -- is in such a rush to cut to the chase the movie is less atmospheric, less lived in than it should have been. One hundred pages of the novel are packed into the first, breathlessly explicatory 15 minutes, introducing not only our spirited pre-adolescent heroine, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), and her shape-shifting daemon, Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), but also several parents and mentors, a quick political synopsis, a plot strand or three, and the mysteries of Pullman's sophisticated cosmology, which I won't attempt to summarize here.
When the movie stops explaining itself and just lets us see for ourselves it works much better. Things settle a bit once we get to the frozen north, scene of several epic battles involving armies of gyptians (travelers), panzerbjorn (armored polar bears), Tartars, witches and even an aeronautical cowboy (Sam Elliott). OK, perhaps "settle" is pushing it, but who's complaining with all this to look at? Sir Ian McKellen's fierce-on-the-outside Iorek Byrnison could spur an unprecedented interest in polar bears for pets.
Among the human cast, Kidman cuts quite a figure as the movie's most duplicitous character. She's dazzling and ice-cold, and it's hard to say what she might not be capable of. Her "Invasion" costar Craig seems to be here mostly as a preview for coming attractions.
But 12-year-old Richards makes a terrific Lyra, the epitome of the unruly, inquisitive, free mind the Coulters of this world fear so greatly.
Regrettably, New Line has chopped off the last three chapters of the book, which were filmed but put aside for later. It would be a terrible pity if it all ended here, not so much on a cliffhanger as on Lyra's lengthy to-do list (item: "Save this world, and the next ...").
Consulting my own box office compass, I'd say the prospects are good enough but unlikely to reach Middle-earth heights. Still, if all goes according to plan, a future showdown with Disney's "Narnia" could be in the cards -- a challenge that Pullman, who's been called the anti-C.S. Lewis, would surely relish.
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