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This Season, the Scrappy Heroes Are Wearing Skirts

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belacqua, the needs-no-help- thanks heroine of <em>The Golden Compass</em>.
Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belacqua, the needs-no-help- thanks heroine of The Golden Compass.

When Hollywood makes action adventures, provocative comedies and fantasy films, it almost always targets teenage boys as the primary audience. This week, the sisters of those boys will also have someone to root for — in Juno and The Golden Compass.

The latter is an enormous, action-packed, magic-fueled fantasy epic — the kind with castles, armies, and creatures not found in your local zoo.

Like, say, armored bears.

What's really remarkable about this epic, though, is that it's headed by a little girl. In most Hollywood adventures, girls — Harry Potter's Hermione, for instance — tend to be part of a hero's posse. But in this one, Lyra Belacqua (played by Dakota Blue Richards) has her own posse, made up of water-dwelling Gyptians, fierce urchins, changeable spirit daemons, plus a bear, a witch and a wardrobe of skirts. Lyra is a fearless little preteen damsel, who does not like even the suggestion that she might ever be a damsel in distress.

Her story is designed to span three films, as it did the three books of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials saga — which proved controversial in some quarters because of the religious beliefs, or more precisely the religious unbelief, of its author. Worrying that this could also be an issue at the Cineplex, the filmmakers have taken great pains to make The Golden Compass amusing, exciting and grand without ever raising anyone's hackles.

The makers of the film Juno, on the other hand, seem to have wondered what's the point of having hackles if they never get elevated, so they push every button they can. Their heroine is a sharp-tongued 16-year-old who's not about to let an unexpected pregnancy get in the way of her quirky sense of humor — even when she and her dad are first meeting some possible adoptive parents.

Juno, played very smartly by Ellen Page, comes off as thoroughly self-possessed and not quite as worldly as she thinks. But she's still a lot worldlier than her boyfriend or the adoptive dad, who are, respectively, just leaving adolescence and desperately clinging to its memory. In fact, if The Golden Compass is a feminized version of all those Lord of the Narnia fantasies, the wistful, snarky Juno qualifies as a distaff answer to Knocked Up.

Now, Hollywood lore says boys prefer movies with boys as heroes — something that becomes self-fulfilling, of course, if girls can't get cast in comparable roles. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Juno and Lyra are not the only sharp-edged gals at center-screen at the moment. This weekend also brings Atonement, in which a lie told by a 13-year-old schoolgirl wrecks a number of lives, and Grace Is Gone, in which a man trying to shield his preteen daughters from tragedy discovers that they're more resilient than he is. And in a few weeks, the animated film Persepolis brings us Iran's Islamic revolution as seen through the eyes of a spunky cutie named Marjane.

All of these roles could've gone to boys, I suppose — except Juno, given that pregnancy has its prerequisites — but I have to say it's interesting to have the shoe on the other foot for a change. It's a sneaker, admittedly, not a high heel. But it's a start.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.