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'The Golden Compass,' a Fantasy Movie Just in Time for the Holidays

In the fantasy drama "The Golden Compass," 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua challenges the ruling regime. Free-spirited Lyra is the only one who can decipher the Golden Compass, an ancient instrument that tells truth from lies. VOA's Penelope Poulou has a review of the first movie installment based on Philip Pullman's book trilogy, "His Dark Materials."

In a universe resembling Victorian England with a touch of Jules Verne phantasmagoria, no one dares to question the Magisterium's authority. This conclave of conservative theocrats forbids free will. But two groups hold onto a sliver of freedom: a few academics, and children, who retain a childlike spirituality and unharnessed spirit -- their "daemon," as they call it. Lyra is one of these children. As with the rest of the children, Lyra's daemon can change shapes. Until she reaches puberty. From that point onwards, as with the rest of the children, her daemon will settle into one type of animal, which will reflects who the person has grown to be.

Strong-willed, curious and intelligent, Lyra is destined to change her world. She owns the alithiometer, a Golden Compass that can reveal the future.

Mrs. Coulter, a calculating and powerful woman, is the Magisterium's operative. She tries to take the Golden Compass from Lyra. She is also abducting children and taking them to a place in the Arctic, where she conducts dangerous experiments on them. By ripping their daemons away, she is trying to eradicate their spirit and free will.

Lyra escapes Mrs. Coulter's clutches and heads north to save her friends. A group of vagabonds - cunning aeronaut, an army of witches and Iorek Byrnison, a massive polar bear - vow to protect her along the way.

Ian McKellen is the roaring, authoritative voice behind the imposing, computer-generated bear. Opposite Iorek, young Dakota Blue Richards holds her ground as Lyra.

Actor Daniel Craig, known as the new, rough and tough "James Bond," shows his more sensitive and intelligent side as Lord Asriel, Lyra's father and an enemy of the regime.

Nicole Kidman is mesmerizing and chilling as wicked Mrs. Coulter. She says the role was a challenge.

"You have to work from within and try to find the motivation as to why she feels what she's doing is right, and therefore, you hope that some sort of humanity bleeds through," says the actress.

"The Golden Compass" is an epic film that boasts impressive cinematography, magnificent special effects and intellectual substance. But like Philip Pullman's trilogy on which it is based, the movie has drawn criticism from Roman Catholic organizations as an atheistic extravaganza not fit for children. But the movie does not belittle religion. There is not a single religious reference in it. Rather, it pits science and rationalism against blind belief. Although it leaves many unanswered questions and begs for a better ending, the film is a visual feast. It is a must - a holiday centerpiece.