Based on the first of Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy trilogy The Golden Compass follows along the same lines as the Harry Potter series. It is set in a parallel universe very much like our own but not quite in which there are witches who fly the skies armored ice bears who rule the north and individual animal spirits called "daemons" who are intricately joined to their human counterparts. And of course there is also the whole good vs. evil milieu. The bad guys in this scenario are the Magisterium a group of high-minded intellectuals running the joint who want to control all of humanity by basically eliminating free will. Our heroine is 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) who turns out to be the Magisterium’s greatest threat because she is the child destined to possess the last remaining Golden Compass a truth-telling device. Still with me? Her uncle the scientist Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is captured by the Magisterium while a benefactress Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) takes Lyra under her wing--mind you not for benevolent reasons. Escaping Mrs. Coulter’s clutches Lyra sets out to find her loyal friend who has mysteriously joined the hundreds of children currently disappearing without a trace. Her adventure takes her over sky and ocean to the north and with her band of friends and allies--and the power of the Golden Compass--Lyra will need all her skill and courage to stop the war that’s coming. Whew that’s a tall order to fill for one little girl. But don’t let the little-girl act fool you. As played by the lovely Richards in her debut performance Lyra is one tough cookie seemingly unafraid of the challenges she faces including confronting a 12-foot-tall polar bear charging at her among other things. Much like Daniel Radcliffe before her the plucky actress is quite a find and should The Golden Compass trilogy continue she’ll be an indelible part of it. As will Kidman and Craig as the yin-and-yang parental figures in Lyra’s life--particularly Kidman who doesn’t stretch much but is effective as Mrs. Coulter. The enchanting lady whose daemon is a nasty golden monkey that doesn’t talk (fits the character perfectly) really does have ice water flowing through her veins. Also good are Sam Elliott as Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and Eva Green as the ethereal witch Serafina Pekkala. But the character who makes the biggest impression both literally and figuratively is the armored ice bear Iorek Byrnison an exiled prince from his homeland of Svalbard who is looking for a little retribution. As voiced by Ian McKellen (who else?) Iorek is definitely a force to be reckoned with every time he is on screen. His bear-on-bear battle with the reigning Svalbardian king who kicked him out is one of the film’s best moments. Love the character names too. There’s a lot going on in The Golden Compass which might confuse the smaller ones in the audience. Pullman's books are dense much like the Harry Potter series and one must stay pretty focused to follow all the film's plot points--some of which will with any luck make more sense further down the line. And it is also at times hard to stay emotionally involved in the spectacle of it all (the exception is definitely the ice bears). But still if you allow yourself to be immersed in this fantastical purely make-believe world of gadgetry grandeur and austerity much like the worlds of Harry Potter Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia then you shouldn’t be too disappointed with Golden Compass. Even more amazing is the director who came up with the film’s vision: Chris Weitz best known for helming the little British dramedy About a Boy. Maybe not the first choice but it’s clear the director is passionate about the material as he covers as much ground as possible in the first installment. Probably the most fascinating part are the daemons who are the animal manifestations of their human counterparts interconnected in all ways. Some have smaller domestic animals such as dogs cats mice; some like Lord Asriel have big animals such as snow leopard; some even have insects. It gets your mind wandering about what yours might be.
Based on the classic Rudyard Kipling story Jungle Book 2 starts basically where the 1967 original left off. Having been lured into the human village by a beautiful young girl Mowgli (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) is now living the life of his people. No more bumping bananas out of a tree swingin' with the monkeys or singing about the "bare necessities" with his old friend Baloo the bear (voiced by John Goodman). Mowgli doesn't mind living with his own kind despite their rules and restrictions especially when he can hang out with the beautiful girl Shanti (voiced by Mae Whitman) but he still misses the wild times he had in the jungle. So does Baloo who pines for his little buddy but is told again and again by the wise panther Bagheera (voiced by Bob Joles) that Mowgli is where he belongs. Even the malevolent tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Tony Jay) would like to get his hands on the man-cub--for a little payback. Finally Mowgli is fed up with the village rules and sneaks off into the jungle with Baloo while Shanti thinks he is being abducted by a wild animal and goes off to rescue him. Egad! Now there's two unsuspecting kids in the jungle. What to do? It's a chase to see who gets to Mowgli first--the man-eating tiger his old pals or his new human friends and family.
Everyone associated with this sequel makes a valiant effort to re-create the indelible character voices from the original but unfortunately just miss the mark. Goodman who will forever be the lovable James P. "Sully" Sullivan from Monsters Inc. can't quite capture the same magic the late Phil Harris had when he brought the big-hearted Baloo to life. Try and imagine someone else playing Sully. See what I mean? The same goes for attempting to top the 1967 originals Sebastian Cabot as the harried Bagheera Sterling Holloway as the villainous snake Kaa (remember "Trusssssst in Me"?) and George Sanders as the ultra-cool Shere Khan. These guys made the Kipling characters their own. Trying to imitate them in Jungle Book 2 doesn't work. At least the sequel has enough smarts to leave out the swingin' orangutan King Louie altogether who was voiced in the original by jazz musician Louis Prima. No one could have even touched that performance. Osment who is making a name for himself in the Disney voice-over community after doing the lead in The Country Bears does a fine job as Mowgli.
The one thing you can say about this sequel is that it tries too hard to be like its ultra-hip predecessor. When the original The Jungle Book was released in 1967 Disney had a vision of Kipling's story as a jazzy jungle romp with great songs such as "Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You' and incorporated some of the era's coolest beatniks including Prima and Harris. Jungle Book 2 isn't as toe-tappin' and fans of the original may think the new musical numbers a little cheesy especially the big one in the jungle ruins with Baloo and company. It can't hold a candle to the King Louie number from the original. Still the film doesn't fail completely. The continuing story of Mowgli's life is engaging as we watch him cope with his new surroundings realizing he truly can't be a jungle boy forever.