Scruffy and unpolished in the open casting call, Dakota Blue Richards shines in her role as the gutsy heroine.
The highlight of this adaptation is newcomer Dakota Blue Richards -- she portrays the bold, courageous and fiercely loyal character of Lyra Belacqua beautifully.
This film is a poor substitute for actually reading Philip Pullman's original novel, Northern Lights, first in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and the plot is nearly impossible to follow for one unfamiliar with Lyra and her exploits prior to viewing. That said, if you have read the book, it's possible to fill in the story-telling gaps in the film with prior knowledge, and enjoy the visual display while allowing that the written version is far more satisfying. (In a second disc interview, actor Daniel Craig admits that he agreed to do the movie because he's a "huge fan of the books", and comments that "There are no gaps in [Pullman's] story. Everything joins together." Those are the books he's speaking of, however.)
The film ignores many of the fascinating elements of Lyra's world, which exists parallel to the one we know. For example, the film explains only briefly, and at the very start (which is quickly forgotten as the action of the movie begins), about the existence of daemons (an external manifestation of peoples' souls, they take an animal form, and during their human's childhood they can switch in appearance to that of any creature, but eventually 'settle' into a single static shape as puberty hits). The fascinating and darkly glamorous witch clans are almost completely skipped over, and the Gyptian people, instrumental to helping Lyra on her journey to the far north, are shortchanged, as well.
Lyra's daemon, Pan (short for Pantalaimon) flits quickly from shape-to-shape as she clambers her way through day-to-day life as an apparent orphan and ward of Jordan College at Oxford University -- one college at the esteemed center of academia which does not exist in our world. With no prior knowledge of daemons, the casual viewer probably has no initial idea what to make of the various creatures that accompany Lyra, until she hides away in an inner chamber off the college's main hall and it becomes clear that these creatures are one and the same, and serve rather like an audible voice of reason, almost constantly ignored by Lyra herself.
Before leaving Jordan college Lyra is given an Alethiometer, a 'golden compass' that tells her the truth about any matter she might think to ask it about, and though her burgeoning skill in reading it is largely skipped over in the film, the idea of the device is clear enough. Though she might ignore Pan most of the time, Lyra takes the Alethiometer quite seriously.
There is little chance to observe Lyra's story-telling ability in action until her skill becomes a matter of life and death. She is a practiced liar for one so young, and the perfectly straight-faced Richards pulls off her character's tall tales with aplomb. Richards carries enough attitude to be convincingly courageous when captured in the far north and presented to the current king of the war-loving armored bears as a gift -- she tells the king she wishes to become his daemon, even as he clutches the twisted and floppy remains of a life size doll which looks like it was inspired by Tim Burton's idea of a cartoon corpse.
Some of the computer animation that makes the concepts within the book possible in film version is excellent. The bears who proudly rule over their northern domain are fearsome indeed, and move believably, protected by their weighty 'sky-iron' plates of armor yet possessing an intrinsic grace. Ian McKellan's voice is perfect for the regal Iorek Byrnison, whom Lyra disarms with her childish charm in the northern outpost of Trollesund. Powerful and intimidating though he is, he serves her in return for her help in securing his lost armor.
Though many of the religious overtones of the book have been glossed over in the movie, it was interesting to see how the Magesterium's office in Trollesund was portrayed – for all the world like a dark wooded Byzantine church with thick golden haloes around saintly images. Iorek destroys half of it after locating his armor, held hostage inside: he bursts ferociously though the outer wall panel, conveniently located immediately next to the door. Like all others who meet Lyra, Iorek seems aware of the importance of this particular child and the necessity of helping her in her quest to save her friend Roger, seized by a group of sinister child snatchers.
Though the armored bears are mesmerizing, there is some computer generated imagery that could have used further work. Nicole Kidman presents a reasonably wicked Mrs. Coulter, glamorous, captivating and misguided, but her golden monkey daemon seems a few generations away from ready for his debut on the silver screen. Granted, as is pointed out in the special features section on disc two, monkeys are extremely difficult to animate -- they are constantly shifting and changing the focus of their attention. Not only is he greasy and slightly awkward in appearance, Kidman also outshines her daemon in craftiness and determination.
As a pair, they are unbalanced, and better use could have been made of the monkey's sneaky character to further Mrs. Coulter's goals, but as portrayed in the movie, these two don't work well together. Perhaps another choice of casting for the role would have solved this problem, as Kidman is normally quite capable of stealing all on-screen attention for herself. As Mrs. Coulter shares that same attribute, it is easy to see why Kidman seemed a good choice initially.
On the other hand, Lord Asriel's daemon Stelmaria is a snow leopard who moves with a heavy grace suitable to a savage hunter. Daniel Craig, who plays Lyra's adventurer uncle Lord Asriel, matches this daemon character well, moving with an athletic and dangerous sureness of manner. Apparently, several different studios took on the tasks of different areas of animation, with one being responsible for the armored bears, another for the major character's daemons, and a third for minor daemons. The discrepancies are disappointing, but unsurprising, in that light.
Whoever was responsible for imagining Lee Scoresby's CGI hot air balloon, however, was inspired. The 'aeronaut' is captain of a vessel with not a single, but twinned massive hydrogen filled bubbles that travel through the air with an effective yet ungainly bearing. Sam Elliott is perfect as Scoresby, with his deep Texan drawl and ten gallon hat. Like the Gyptians and witches, however, Scoresby's backstory is just about skipped completely in the interests of moving the plot forward, and it's difficult to tell where he comes from or how he fits into the story.
What is lost in the subtlety of plot development and character detail is gained in the sheer look-at-me visual aspects of the film.
For anyone with more than a passing interest in the film as an adaptation of the excellent fantasy series, this edition is quite helpful because it boasts an extra two and a half hours of commentary segments ranging from interview clips with Pullman, both in his writing library and on set, to the extensive development of fantastic costumes, to filming the bronze casting of the Alethiometers (there were six used on-screen, and one that was actually programmed to wirelessly respond to computer input for the turning of the interior mechanism), to lots of discussion about how the daemons and the armored bear fight sequence were animated. Fun fact: Pullman attended Exeter College at Oxford, and Lyra's Jordan College room in the film is actually his old room.
An especially wonderful aspect of the extra disc is getting to see Richards in initial auditions, as open casting calls were held in four parts of Britain during the quest to find the perfect Lyra; tens of thousands of girls from age nine to 13 tried out for the coveted role. From the very first camera shots the character shines through Richards -- she is scruffy and unpolished, yet delivers the lines persuasively and emphatically with a skill beyond her 11 years.