One of the triumphs of Chris Weitz's adaptation of the first book in the series, Northern Lights (named The Golden Compass here, the title the novel was released under in the United States), is that the interaction between human and daemon is so cleverly done, and seems so natural, that about halfway in I basically stopped thinking about it. The daemon simply became one part of a two-sided whole, largely unobstrusive and unfussy, except in those moments where the characters emote through their daemon.
In fact, the external daemon, walking and talking, or hopping or flying depending on the character, is an incredibly useful device for a filmmaker, particularly when dealing with a plot as complex as that of the Dark Materials (something likely to become clearer in the much more involved and complicated plots of the second and third books of the trilogy).
Lyra, the film's central character, is able to communicate her thoughts and emotions and unravel tricky plot details, in conversation with her daemon, Pantalaimon, and others do the same.
This could have been laboured and awkward, but extraordinary CGI and some sympathetic direction ensure this element of the story plays out extremely well.
Weitz and his crew actually meet all the visual challenges meted out by Pullman's story: the great armoured bears of the North, the flying witches, Lee Scoresby's airship, as well as a world that is parallel, and similar, but definitely not the same as our's.
At the heart of Pullman's tale is the simple quest of young Lyra to fulfil a promise to a friend to resuce him from the "Gobblers", a group of mysterious child snatchers. Lyra Bellacqua does not know it at the beginning of the story, but she is no ordinary child, and her adventure is part of a much larger struggle, something she learns gradually as she gets further towards the frozen north where her friend Roger is being held by the Magisterium (a not very heavily disguised version of the church) which plans dastardly experiments on him and others.
The rest of the characters line up either for or against here. Ranged against is Mrs Coulter, a spy for the Magisterium, the rest of the forces of the church and a great Tartar army. With her is Iorek Byrnison, a great fighting bear, Lee Scoresby, the Texan aeronaut, witch queen Serafina Pekkala and the sea-faring Gyptian people, whose children have suffered more than most at the hands of the Gobblers.
The cast play their parts to near perfection. Nicole Kidman is positively terrifying as the evil Mrs Coulter, with the smallest smile of movement of an eyebrow guaranteed to send a chill down the spine. Sam Elliott is wonderfully laconic as Lee Scoresby, and Eva Green (who regular readers will recall I drooled over last year as Vesper Lind) is cooly sexy and wise as Serafina Pekkala.
But the dramatisation of this story hangs on the portrayal of Lyra, and the true triumph of Weitz and his fellow film makers is the discovery of Dakota Blue Richards (left), an unknown plucked from the ranks of 10,000 who turned up to audition for the part. She is a revelation, carrying the belligerent childishness of the innocent Lyra, through the courage of the girl prepared to chase her lost friend and right to the growing wisdom of discovery (both of herself and everything around her).
She is beautiful, which helps. But she has presence, which is far more important, illuminating every scene she is in. There are sterner challenges ahead for those making this trilogy - both the Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass will offer far more challenges than the Golden Compass - but they know they have an actress who can carry the entire series.
In all, this film is a marvel. It manages to recreate fairly faithfully the spirit and story of Pullman's book, but also brings it to life quite magnificently as a stunning visual feast.
As a fan of Pullman's books, I enjoyed it enormously. As a newcomer to these tales, so did my wife, and we both look forward to future installments.