Mark your calendars, for I am about to say something that I never, ever say: The Golden Compass has all the ingredients to be a fairly good movie, excepting that it is completely undone by its screenplay. And as long as I'm saying uncharacteristic things, here's another: The Golden Compass could probably have been salvaged if it were another half-hour longer.

For the uninitiated: the film, based on Philip Pullman's novel (originally titled Northern Lights) is set sometime early in the 20th Century, on a parallel earth where the Reformation never occurred - hence the Catholic Church (called in the film the much less incendiary "Magisterium") has control over basically the whole of humanity - and where all people are accompanied by dæmons, physical manifestations of the soul that take the form of talking animals. In this world, at Jordan College in Oxford, we meet young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), niece of the great freethinking scientist Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who finds herself at the center of a plot by the Magisterium, embodied by the devilish Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), to secure their grip over the whole multiverse. Along the way Lyra meets with witches, river folk and talking bears, and she learns to control a magical device called an alethiometer that will always show her the truth.

As presented in the novel, this is all very piecemeal and somewhat intuitive; unlike in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, the world isn't built up around the reader so much as the reader is tossed into the world and forced to figure things out on the fly. It's really the only way the book could be structured, for our surrogate Lyra is a part of that world, and there is no sensible reason for her to require page after page of exposition and description. The book becomes a sort of puzzle or mystery for the reader to assemble even as the plot moves forward and Lyra is confronted with wonders even confusing to her. It's not very easy but it works well, and makes the book a far more rewarding experience than simply recounting "this happened and then that happened." It is, unfortunately, a form that proves deadly to the movie.

A very real part of what makes the book work is how leisurely it is; we are given pages upon pages of everyday life to ease ourselves into the world. In contrast, the movie positively tears ass. It's about 105 minutes without the credits, and even though a huge amount of the book has been excised (nearly half, I don't wonder), that's still not remotely enough time to cover everything that's been left in and indulge in the slow boil that made the book work as well as it did. Scenes tumble upon one another with a rapid pace that makes it seem like the whole story takes place in just a day or two, and we get no chance to think about what anything means before we're being ushered into the next setpiece. And if the story seems rushed to someone familiar with the novel, I imagine that it would be impenetrably confusing to a neophyte. Covering too much ground in too little time leaves the film feeling shallow and inchoate.

I really do think, however, that its breathless pace is the only true problem with the film, and if had only another half-hour to expand into, it might have been a fine adventure film, certainly not a masterpiece but a solid evening's entertainment, because all the pieces seem like they're there: writer-director Chris Weitz may have an unimaginative style, but it's clean and functional, and there are plenty of passing lines that make it clear that he gets the point of the novel, and the performances are mostly good, sometimes very good indeed.

First and above all, there is Dakota Blue Richards, a 13-year-old actress in her first role, and she is surely the finest young star with the name "Dakota" that I have ever seen. Which is useful, as she is onscreen for a huge percentage of the movie. Admittedly, the role doesn't require a great deal of versatility - Lyra is essentially a stubborn and sarcastic girl, and everything else she feels or does is filtered through a level of toughness - but Richards plays the characters few notes with great depth and conviction.

She holds her own against the big star opposite, Nicole Kidman in one of the best performances she has given in a very long time. Mrs. Coulter is a character much like Kidman plays in Margot at the Wedding, very finely attuned to all of her perceived and actual faults as an actress and a person: her emotions are all forced and false, her true demeanor icy and reserved. Whether one believes that Kidman is capable of nothing else (I happen to think she is), there is no denying that she does this very well, and her Mrs. Coulter is yet another in the current wave of great female villains in fantasy films, after Imelda Staunton's Dolores Umbridge and Tilda Swinton's White Witch.

The rest of the cast is mostly strong in tiny roles that were much larger in the book: Sam Elliott is a particular standout as Lee Scorseby, the archetypal Texan vagabond, and Ian McKellan's rumbly voice is perfect for the exiled polar bear noble Iorek Byrnison. The only truly flat performance is luckily a small one, though still surprising: Daniel Craig as Asriel, containing none of the charisma or cleverness that the character possesses on the page, but only bristling indifference.

Then, there's the film's generally middling appearance. The co-director of American Pie and About a Boy was hardly an intuitive choice to helm a massively expensive fantasy epic, and it turns out that he wasn't a very inspired choice, either. His strength, such as it is, has been in what you might call "chamber" moments, capturing people interacting in a small way, and I'll concede that it might have been interesting to see that sensibility applied to The Golden Compass, except he didn't - he strives for the scope we typically associate with the genre and misses. The comparison to Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings is simple and easy, but not inappropriate: at his best moments, Jackson did a reasonably fine job depicting a sense of big-eyed wonder at the great big world (at his worst moments, which I'd contend were more numerous, he simply gawked at the set). Weitz's best moments and his worst moments are largely identica: get a nice long shot of something epic and just kind of look at it. It's not violently indifferent as Chris Columbus's notoriously impersonal work on the first two Harry Potter films was, but it's too efficient and workmanlike to propel the film into the sort of romantic awe that marks the best fantasy films.

Still, it's not a real liability, it's just not a strength. Certainly, it wouldn't be enough to keep me from hoping that New Line might have some of their famous extended edition DVD's coming down the pike, although the film's dismaying box office seems to outlaw that possibility, to say nothing of making two sequels. I can't say that it's a pity; we'll always have the books, and we'll always have this rather lackluster movie as the latest in a long line of projects that reached a bit too far and ended up turning into an inoffensive bit of disposable nothing.