Golden Compass imageI got hold of a pass to see a sneak preview showing of The Golden Compass at a Manhattan theatre last night, and I definitely recommend that you see it when it opens on Friday the 7th.

The only caution is that you might want to see it twice. It goes by really fast.

Perhaps because all three of the Lord of the Rings movies were three hours long, which meant that a theater held fewer showings and thus took in less money, it looks as if the studio, New Line (the same studio that put out the LOTR) told Chris Weitz, the Golden Compass director, to keep things moving at a good clip.

And so he did. The movie clocks in at slightly less than two hours; it whips by. The story has been edited so tightly that no sooner do you meet Lord Asriel than his scenes are over; no sooner do you meet the Gyptians than they’ve sailed on. But what you do see has been beautifully conceived; the steampunk trappings of Lyra’s world, with the retro zeppelins and anabaric carriages, made me smile hugely.

Those who, like myself, have read the trilogy more than once will be surprised by the film. The order of some of the scenes has been rearranged; the characters who perform certain actions (notice I’m not giving you any spoilers here) are not the ones you would expect if you’ve read the book. But somehow it all works, and the actors do a great job. Philip Pullman, the man himself, says he approves. The computer-generated imagery of the daemons ranges from super-cool to kind of cheesy, but the armored bear Iorek Byrnison (helped along by a perfect and sepulchral voice performance from Ian McKellen) bulks wonderfully; you really feel his size and weight.

Even though I saw this for free, I’m going back to buy a ticket and see it again. I’m already waiting for the movie of The Subtle Knife.