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The Golden Compass (2007)

Based on a hugely popular novel (Northern Lights by Philip Pullman), and cast with some of the greatest names in the movies, The Golden Compass fared surprisingly badly in the U.S.

The film did much better abroad than it did in the United States. Of its $400 million gross, less than $100 million was earned in its country of origin.

The film may have bombed in the U.S. because it's not as well-known here, but since 1995, the trilogy of which The Golden Compass (North American title) is the first installment, has been extremely popular with both adolescents and adults. It has earned all kinds of awards, among them:

2001 Whitbread Book of the Year
Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK 1995
The Observer's list of 100 Best novels
The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (the "Nobel Prize of children's lit," worth about $570,000)

This film carries plenty of known star power in the form of human characters:

Nicole Kidman...Mrs. Coulter
Daniel Craig... Lord Asriel
Sam Elliot...Lee Scoresby
Christopher Lee...First High Councilor
Derek Jacoby...Magisterial Emissary

and as the voices of non-human creatures:

Ian Mclellen...Iorek Byrnison, the armored polar bear (I knew the voice was familiar!)
Kathy Bates...Hester, Scoresby's jack rabbit daemon.

The part of Lyra Belacqua, the wild child protagonist, was cast after a cattle call that drew 10,000 hopefuls. Dakota Blue Richards, a fan of the novels and the daughter of a single mother living in Brighton (England), won. Although Dakota's name might suggest American origins, her English mother spent only a year in the States. No information about her father's nationality has been made public.

It's clear from the get-go that the novel must have a complicated backstory, but with the help of a Voice Over, the viewer quickly understands that the action is taking place in a universe in which human beings have daemons who accompany them from birth, the other half of their psychic selves.

These daemons take the form of animals. Those belonging to children can change from one animal form to another. Lyra's daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), shifts back and forth from weasel to cat to bird. When a child becomes an adult, the daemon form remains fixed. Lord Asriel has a snow leopard. Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a sinister golden monkey.

The depiction of the daemons alone necessitated some clever work by the art department. Michael L. Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris, and Trevor Wood deserved their Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

Too bad the producers couldn't have rounded up enough capital to do a Peter Jackson and film all three installments of the Pullman trilogy at one time.

I'm certainly going to read the trilogy.

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