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 E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.