LOS ANGELES - "

Golden Compass

is the biggest gamble this studio has ever taken," says director Chris Weitz, and that's saying something. New Line Cinema, after all, famously invested $300 million in the

Lord of the Rings

trilogy before the first part even opened. Now, New Line is betting the ranch on Weitz's film adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy epic.

Starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ian McKellen, and 12-year-old newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, The Golden Compass tells the story of a plucky orphan armed with a truth-telling compass called an Alethiometer. The film opens Friday.

Pursued by the ruling Magisterium elders, Lyra (Richards) journeys north to rescue friends kidnapped by soul-stealing Gobblers. Along the way she encounters witches, seafaring gyptians, and armor-clad bears. Complicating matters: In this world, each human is accompanied by a daemon, an animal form that embodies the character's inner spirit.

Blending live-action performers with believable talking creatures in nearly every scene of a two-hour movie doesn't come cheap. The Golden Compass cost anywhere from $180 million to $250 million to make. And make no mistake: Weitz felt the pressure every step of the way.

But Weitz says he simply couldn't resist taking a crack at the material after reading Pullman's work six years ago. Chomping on an apple in a Los Angeles hotel room, he recalls, "I was in London directing About a Boy when a friend gave me The Golden Compass and [the trilogy's] second book, The Subtle Knife. I was astounded by the intellectual daring of Pullman's enterprise because it embraces quantum physics, child psychology, theology, philosophy, cosmology, metaphysics. At the same time, it's a ripping yarn that bridges the gap between this intimate story of a child and grand cosmic events."

Not everyone is a fan of Pullman's work. In October the New York-based Catholic League called for a boycott of The Golden Compass. The group contends that the movie could steer children to Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, which league president Bill Donohue described as being "fueled by hatred of all religions."

Weitz snorts, "I don't have an agenda. I'm a father. The last thing in the world I want to do is harm a child. I think these books and the film that I've made go out of their way to support certain virtues: loyalty, courage, decency, kindness. To express any more anger about [the boycott] would just be giving more oxygen to their fire, which I'm not particularly interested in doing."

Controversy was the last thing on his mind when Weitz put together a 40-page "portfolio" and persuaded New Line to put him in charge of the movie despite his lack of credentials in the fantasy genre.

"I'm the guy that directed American Pie, so you'd think I'd just be a goofball," he says with a laugh. "But when people meet me, it's such a gloomy and cerebral experience, I guess they realized I might be ready to approach something like this."

Weitz, Oscar-nominated for his About a Boy script, had no problem crafting a screenplay adaptation for Compass but came down with a severe case of stage fright after visiting Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson's digital effects complex in New Zealand.

"I was there four days and it scared the wits out of me," Weitz says. "I really didn't understand the logistical and technical aspects of that world. Peter was so far ahead of me in that regard that it gave me the willies, so when I got back I said to New Line, 'I don't think I'm capable of executing this.' "

New Line replaced Weitz with Anand Tucker, who directed Shopgirl. When Tucker split over creative differences, Weitz got a second chance. "Making a movie eats up so much of your life," he says. "At the time I felt I may only have one more movie in me, in terms of my ability to cope mentally with it all. I decided, if I'm going to go crazy, I may as well go crazy on a really big one."

Weitz assembled a production team with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alumni. About 1,400 visual effects artists led by Michael Fink (X-Men) focused on the digitized creatures, while production designer Dennis Gassner (Road to Perdition) fleshed out the film's eccentric array of zeppelins, carriages, sky ferries and weaponry.

"Pullman's books indicate a kind of retro-futuristic Victoriana," Weitz says. "The story takes place in this handmade world that hadn't been hit yet by the industrial revolution, but we felt free to borrow and steal from any period we wanted to. There's a lot of art deco, some straight up sci-fi, muskets from the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War - I counted on Dennis to make something coherent out of these wildly hybridized visual references."

But none of this spectacle would amount to much, Weitz realized, without a compelling child to carry the movie.

"If Lyra didn't work, the picture wouldn't work," Weitz says. Cue Dakota Blue Richards. Plucked from 10,000 youngsters who showed up at cattle call auditions throughout England, the schoolgirl had never acted before but was dying to play Lyra after seeing a London stage production of The Golden Compass.

"Dakota is obviously beautiful and all that good stuff, but Pullman likes to use the word feral to describe Lyra, and Dakota's got that slightly wild, untamed quality," Weitz says.

Sam Elliott, who portrays a cowboy-hatted air-balloon pilot, was mightily impressed with the rookie actress. "The kid just blew me away on every level," he drawled, "and the camera loves Dakota. When I saw the whole movie for the first time, what I liked even more than seeing the CGI stuff was watching this girl act."

During production, Weitz consulted with the Oxford-educated Pullman whenever he considered changes to the source material. "He's a gracious, scholarly, interesting fellow," Weitz says. "Keeping Pullman happy has been a priority for me."

Weitz did make a few changes. He dropped Pullman's use of the term "Church," used to refer to the authoritarian force that sought to control the children, shifted the events in the book's dark ending to the beginning of the hoped-for sequel, and toned down the graphic violence.

"There's no blood at all in the movie," Weitz notes. "I wanted to make a film kids could experience, so there's no gore, and when people are fighting, it's for things that are important - to protect their children and their friends."