The Golden Compass (PG)

If you're not already a fan of Philip Pullman's book you'll be baffled by a film that's full of stars but sheds little light
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Do you know the way to Bolvangar? Can you explain the connection between the Gobblers and the General Oblation Board? Can you hear the names Serafina Pekkala and Iorek Byrnison without sniggering? If you answered "yes" to these questions, you must have read at least one of the books in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, otherwise known as the children's fantasy saga for people who get snobby about Harry Potter. But if those questions sounded like gobbledegook, then beware of The Golden Compass, which is based on the first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights. For viewers not already under Pullman's spell, there's a lot more gobbledegook where that came from.

Much like the makers of the Harry Potter films, the writer-director, Chris Weitz, has taken the "supermarket sweep" approach to adapting the book, in that he charges through it, grabbing as many of the key scenes as he possibly can, and bunging them in his trolley, without pausing to consider whether those scenes fit together to make a coherent film. The approach works well enough in the Potter franchise, because once you've picked up the basic concept of a boy going to a school for wizards, all the other elements follow on. The Golden Compass is more convoluted.

It's set in a parallel universe where zeppelins are the main form of air travel, and where every human being has an external soul called a daemon which takes the form of a talking animal. Its 11-year-old heroine is the bolshy Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), who has an Oliver Twist accent even though she's the ward of an Oxford college. Her uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig) is a scientist and explorer who is researching "dust", sparkly particles that bind infinite numbers of universes together. But his studies contradict the dogma espoused by the Magisterium, a thought police controlled by Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee. These villains aren't quite the religious zealots that they are in Pullman's church-bashing novels, a compromise which has upset many of his fans. But the bad guys' uniforms look like cassocks, and their headquarters resemble St Paul's Cathedral with a CGI extension. When an Oxford don stands up for "tolerance and free enquiry" and a Magisterium agent denounces Asriel's work as "heresy", the subtext isn't too far beneath the surface.

Anyway, Lyra wants to follow in her uncle's adventuring footsteps, so when a glamorous and enigmatic stranger named Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) offers to take her on an expedition to the frozen north, she jumps at the chance. To help her on her way, she has an alethiometer, a golden device which isn't actually a compass, but a clockwork machine which can answer any question her own portable Wikipedia. And once you've got to grips with all that, we can move on to the alcoholic polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) and the crowds of Gyptians and Samoyeds.

Like the Queen on a tour of the Commonwealth, Lyra doesn't seem to have an urgent mission, but she's continually shunted from place to place and introduced to new people. Her travels look as bright and shiny as you'd expect from a big-budget, effects-heavy blockbuster, and you can't say you're bored when you're never more than a minute away from another famous face, elaborate costume or computer-generated vista. But a plot that had its own rhythm and logic in the 400-page novel seems elliptical and random in the film, as if a small child were making it up as she went along. After he's made an appearance at the start, Daniel Craig gets his own miniature Bond escapade, somewhere in the Arctic, and then he's forgotten. His Casino Royale co-star, Eva Green, drops from the sky as a witch, has a few words with Lyra, then flies off again. An airship pilot (Sam Elliott) dressed as a cowboy suddenly joins Lyra's merry band, too. And so it goes on. You get the feeling that Weitz could keep chucking in more and more adults to aid Lyra indefinitely. Conversely, you feel he could miss half of them out without damaging the story.

If the other books in Pullman's trilogy are filmed, I assume they'll supply all of these characters with some dramatic purpose, but in the meantime, The Golden Compass leaves most of its threads hanging. There can be few films so blatantly designed to get a series under way, which don't even attempt to satisfy the viewer on their own.

Whether audiences will turn out in sufficient numbers to warrant the making of parts two and three remains to be seen.