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The Golden Compass [Blu-ray]

Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker

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A fantasy epic with more than a passing resemblance to the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia film franchises, The Golden Compass takes place in an alternate universe where each human''s soul is embodied in a companion animal called a daemon. Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan who''s lived most of her life among the scholars at Oxford, is intrigued when her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), announces his plans to travel north to investigate the source of some mysterious particles called Dust. Lyra has little hope of following her uncle until a mysterious woman named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, at her most icily beautiful) asks Lyra to travel north as her personal assistant. All is not as it seems, however, and the disappearance of Lyra''s friend Roger (Ben Walker) sets her on a dizzying adventure. She does have an alethiometer, or golden compass, that can help her see the truth, and a number of companions, including her shape-shifting daemon, Pantalaimion (voiced by Freddie Highmore of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), polar-bear warrior Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), and witch queen Serafina Pekkala (Craig''s Casino Royale co-star, Eva Green). Even before its release, The Golden Compass was the subject of controversy over its perceived anti-religious themes. While it does involve an oppressive institution called the Magisterium, it''s not overtly religious, particularly to a young viewer. The movie''s PG-13 rating should be taken seriously, however. Suitable for an older audience than Narnia (though younger than The Lord of the Rings), it deals with complex concepts, violence (though largely bloodless) and implied death, children and animals in peril, and an unrelentingly ominous and unsettling mood.

Despite a few changes and rearrangements, the overall plot of the movie is remarkably faithful to its source material, the first installment of Philip Pullman''s His Dark Materials trilogy. It doesn''t finish the book, however, and--much like The Fellowship of the Ring did--leaves the viewer hanging in anticipation of the next film, The Subtle Knife, due in 2009. So even though The Golden Compass is impressive--especially with its spot-on cast and terrific visual effects--we probably won''t know its full emotional impact until the story is complete. --David Horiuchi

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