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Fantasia of the soul

In 'Golden Compass,' animators pair people & spirit animals to superb effect

There is fear afoot that the fantasy epic "The Golden Compass" is some kind of atheist antidote to "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Hard to say. The scene that brings the house down is a smack-down in the snow between two armored polar bears. It looks more like an R-rated Coke commercial, and as far as I could tell steered clear of any overt denunciation of the Almighty.

The same could be said for the rest of this movie - spotty but often effectively weird - whose human characters inhabit a Jules Verne-ish world realized almost entirely via special effects. That can be a problem, but in this case it isn't. "The Golden Compass" contains a rumored $180 million worth of digital images, and it's some of the best stuff Hollywood has produced to date.

And it's hard to imagine how this movie could have been achieved without them. "Compass," adapted from the "His Dark Materials" books by Philip Pullman, takes place in a Victorian fantasy world wherein every person's soul walks alongside them in the shape of an animal, called a daemon.

Thus, every character is accompanied by a tiger, or baboon, or a creature that constantly morphs from one critter to another - a feat of animal control that would defeat the most ingenious wrangler. So, director Chris Weitz has gambled that his digital animators could deliver realistic animals, and it's paid off.

As for the humans, newcomer Dakota Blue Richards has the crucial role of Lyra. She's a feisty orphan schoolgirl whose special gifts make her the central figure in the looming struggle between the friendly academics of her sheltered school world and a bunch of crypto-fascist bureaucrats known as the Magisterium.

In Pullman's books the Magisterium is sometimes referred to as The Holy Church, which is why the movie has attracted the attention of boycotters. In the movie, the anti-clerical language is soft-pedaled, and Magisterium officials (led by Derek Jacobi) are costumed to look more like Nazis by way of Willy Wonka.

They are fearful that the academics, with their advocacy of reason and free will, will undermine the Magisterium's desire for control and its plan to create a docile, obedient populace.

The Magisterium is experimenting with children, trying to find ways to give them something called intercission, a kind of spiritual lobotomy that separates kids from their daemons.

Lyra, with her magic compass, attempts to stop the experiments by deploying a ragtag team of witches, gypsies, polar bears and an airborne cowboy played by Sam Elliott. The second half of the movie is almost nonstop odyssey and action, and only begins to feel Michael Bay-ish in its later stages.

Nicole Kidman turns up as a guardian the intuitive Lyra does not trust - Kidman's icy blond femininity has rarely been put to such good use, and a scene of her slapping her daemon monkey would make Margaret Hamilton green with envy, if she weren't already green. *

Produced by Deborah Forte, Bill Carraro, written and directed by Chris Weitz, music by Alexandre Desplat, distributed by New Line Cinema.