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THE GOLDEN COMPASS is an adaptation of the first book in the beloved but controversial fantasy series by Phillip Pullman. The story opens with Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) an orphan girl who lives in an alternate world that is similar to earth, but where people's souls exist outside of their bodies in animal form. The people are ruled by a shadowy and oppressive council known as the Magisterium, which is doing it's best to keep everyone from getting information about what is called 'Dust.' Lyra's Uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig) has been researching Dust, and he has seen to it that Lyra is given safe shelter at Jordan College. But when the visiting Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) arrives, she asks Lyra to accompany her on a trip to the North to meet the Panserbjorne, a race of armoured bears. Before Lyra leaves, the Headmaster gives her a golden compass, a device which only she can read, and from which she can intuit the truth. Lyra leaves with Mrs. Coulter, but when she learns that her friends have been kidnapped by 'Gobblers' she heads out to find them, and soon joins forces with the nomadic Gyptians, some witches, and an armoured bear called Iorek Byrnison (voice by Ian McKellen). Lyra finds her friends, and so discovers the evil plans the Magisterium has cooked up for the world's children. By the film's end, she has vowed to track down her Uncle Asriel, and to discover the true power of Dust.
Hollywood had a tricky time of taming this tale, as Pullman's books portray religion - the Catholic Church in particular - in a less than flattering light. The film version carefully steers clear of these themes, and instead puts its enormous budget into creating visually stunning effects. While fans of the books may find fault with this streamlined version, children are sure to revel in the many talking animals and whimsical airships.