It might seem obvious to point out that The Golden Compass is New Line's latest hope of capturing the Christmas box-office dollar of The Lord of the Rings and Narnia franchises. But it's that corporate cynicism that ruins the movie. The Golden Compass plays so cautiously in its need to please that it never transcends this been-there-done-that vibe. Giving a big-scale fantasy to Chris Weitz (the uncredited co-director of American Pie) was a mistake. Weitz's reliance on close-ups means he doesn't have to worry about scale, but fans of Philip Pullman's His Dark Material novels aren't wrong to expect something epic. Many of the tragic elements of Pullman's books are glossed over—talky exposition is Weitz's most comfortable wave. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) brief orphan Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) and the audience on the rules of daemons (every person's animal companion that represents their soul), political belief and inter-universe travel.
Only in the last half does The Golden Compass stop explaining itself long enough to let things happen. A fight between two polar bears is the movie's highlight, lifting the excitement so that one barely stops to notice the scene is entirely animated.
But the lack of risk in The Golden Compass backfires. Its edge has been removed, to make a friendly, accessible first installment, which doesn't make the prospect of two more movies in this series exciting.