When it was first announced that New Line had acquired the big-screen rights to British novelist Philip Pullman's acclaimed fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, his substantial (and quite vocal) fan base fretted that the studio would insist on omitting some of the series' more controversial themes, specifically its not-so-subtle indictment of organized religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. And while the film version of The Golden Compass, the first book in the series, isn't the call to arms for atheists that Catholic League head William Donohue believes it to be, readers will be happy to hear that it does retain the driving point of Pullman's story—that free will must trump doctrine at every turn. You've got to give writer-director Chris Weitz credit for ensuring that the author's message comes through amidst the movie's CGI wizardry and large-scale set-pieces. In fact, his script is a solid adaptation of a difficult book, one that doesn't lend itself easily to launching the kind of blockbuster fantasy franchise that a post-Lord of the Rings New Line is clearly hungering for.

Of course, turning the novel into a screenplay was only half of Weitz's assignment—he also had to take Pullman's story from the page to the screen. And it's here, unfortunately, where things break down. The Golden Compass is a textbook case of what can happen when an epic fantasy is put in the hands of a director with only a modicum of visual imagination. At one point during pre-production, Weitz himself sensed he wasn't up to the task of bringing the book to life and temporarily gave up the director's chair, only to be coaxed back after his replacement experienced "creative differences" with the studio and jumped ship. Cruel as this may sound, his first instincts were correct. Directing a film like The Golden Compass demands a strong, clear vision that Weitz—a smart guy and a talented writer—doesn't possess. Say what you will about Peter Jackson's occasional lapses into self-indulgence, he's a filmmaker who completely immerses himself in the worlds he's creating and his passion comes through onscreen. Weitz's direction, in contrast, is more distant, almost disengaged. It's as if he doesn't entirely believe in this universe, and if it isn't real to him, it will never feel real to the audience.

With the lack of a sure hand behind the camera, the film's capable cast is left stranded in front of it. That's a shame, because Weitz and his team have assembled a strong ensemble here, beginning with Dakota Blue Richards, a novice actress who beat out thousands of other girls for the role of Lyra Belacqua, Pullman's young heroine. A precocious adventure-seeker born of mysterious parentage, Lyra resides in an Oxford college on a parallel Earth, one where people's souls are manifested in physical form as shape-shifting animals called daemons. She's cared for by the school's headmasters and her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), a renowned scientist and explorer who believes he has discovered an interdimensional gateway at the Arctic Circle that leads to an infinite number of other Earths. This news excites his colleagues, but doesn't please the heads of the Magisterium, the quasi-religious organization whose word is close to law on this version of Earth. Sensing a threat to their power, the group goes to great lengths to keep Asriel from finding the portal.

The Magisterium is equally concerned about Asriel’s niece, who has come into possession of a Golden Compass, a magical device that allows its user to peer into the future and learn other people’s secrets. So they dispatch the radiant Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to informally adopt Lyra and discover where she's hiding the Compass. Lyra eventually wises up to Coulter's motivations and escapes her clutches, following her uncle's footsteps north to the frozen Arctic wastelands. Along the way, she encounters witches (Eva Green), gypsies (Clare Higgins), cowboys (Sam Elliott) and battle-armor-clad polar bears that speak in the regal tones of Ians McKellen and McShane.

While all this may sound complicated, at heart The Golden Compass is essentially a chase picture with the titular object standing in as the MacGuffin everyone is pursuing. Weitz remains largely faithful to the broad outline of Pullman's narrative, but has sped up the pace considerably. On the one hand, this lends some momentum to a story that, on the page, often emphasizes philosophizing over action. At the same time, the film moves so quickly we barely get the chance to know most of the supporting characters; Eva Green's role, for example, basically consists of her showing up in a funny costume, introducing herself and then disappearing until the climactic skirmish between Lyra's ragtag "army" and the Magisterium's foot soldiers. Perhaps Weitz's oddest creative choice was concluding the film on an open-ended note a la Fellowship of the Ring. In that case, the second and third parts of the trilogy were already in the can. As of now, there's no word on when (or even if) we'll see the remaining two installments of the His Dark Materials series.