As I mentioned earlier, The Golden Compass is based on Philip Pullman's Northern Lights. The novel is set in a steampunk world analogous to our own Victorian Era. Much of this world is dominated by the Magisterium, a religious institution that practises an odd blend of Calvinism and Catholicism and answerable only to the Authority (a powerful entity who is not, as many seem to believe, God). Here England is still a world power and the nations are not the same as our own (for instance, Svalbard is ruled by the intelligent, armoured bears known as Panserbjorn). Every human being in this world has his or her own daemon, a manifestation of that person's soul taking the form of an animal of the opposite sex. Children's daemons are able to change shape, although they settle into one form by adulthood (Lord Asriel's daemon is a snow leopard named Stelmaria). Central to the plot of Northern Lights and the rest of His Dark Materials trilogy is the device known as an alethiometer, a device which measures the truth (there were once several in existence, now there is only one). Given the portrayal of organised religion in His Dark Materials trilogy, it is perhaps understandable why the trilogy of late has generated more controversy than even the Harry Potter series.
The movie The Golden Compass sidesteps this controversy by never directly mentioning either God or religion. While an individual watching the film could easily interpret the Magisterium as being a version of the Church, it can just as easily be interpreted as any other source of authority, from the Congress of Soviets to the Gestapo. Regardless of the content of the novel, then, the film operates not as a commentary on organised religion, but rather as an example of British fantasy at its finest.
Indeed, among the objections that I have to some of the poorer reviews this film has received is that it lacks warmth. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the movie is darker and more complex than the film version of The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I also found it much warmer. Much of this stems from the fact that, contrary to many of the reviews you will see out there, the characters are developed quite well through a combination of director Chris Weitz's script and the talents of the film's fine cast. In fact,I would have to say that the film is nearly perfectly cast. After all, if one needs a grizzled aeronaut/cowboy, who better to cast than the one and only Sam Elliot? Similarly, if one needs a cool but sexy blonde, one could perhaps do no better than Nicole Kidman (still one of my favourite actresses around). Nearly every part in the film is perfectly cast, from a cameo by the great Christopher Lee as the Magisterium's First High Councillor to Ian McKellan as the voice of the Panserbjorn Iorek Byrnison and Ian McShane as the voice of his evil counterpart Ragnar Sturlusson. While the film is filled with some very big name actors, among the most delightful members of the cast is its lead, Dakota Blue Richards. Richards plays Lyra Belacqua, the 12 year old noble girl who wants to be a ragamuffin, but finds herself swept up in events much bigger than herself. Richards convincingly plays a resourceful young girl with the courage, intelligence, and charisma to get herself out of nearly any situation.
The Golden Compass also benefits from being beautifully shot. The movie features some of the most amazing visuals seen in films of late, and ones that are a stark contrast to the psuedo-medeival landscapes of Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, or the more modern ones of the Harry Potter series. The settings range from a wonderful realisation of Pullman's steampunk, pseudo-Victorian version of London to the frozen landscape of Svalbard. The sets and costumes are suitably lavish for an epic fantasy film set in a Victorian world.
This is not to say that The Golden Compass is a perfect film. The movie suffers from what I like to call Harry Potter syndrome. Harry Potter syndrome results when filmmakers adapt a novel and try to fit so much of that novel into the movie that in end it feels a bit rushed. This is the case with The Golden Compass, particularly in its first quarter. The movie could have easily been made a half hour longer, fleshing out some of the situations in the film, and not suffered at all. In fact, I rather believe it would have been a much better film (which to me is really saying something).
From this review it should be obvious that I really liked The Golden Compass. It is for that reason that I am puzzled as to why the movie has received so many bad reviews. I honestly have to wonder if many of the critics are reacting more to the controversy generated by the books than they are the film itself. It's either that or they wandered into a showing of Fred Claus instead. Regardless, I am telling you not to listen to the naysayers with regards to this movie. Go see The Golden Compass. You'll thank me later.
Postscript: For those of you who are curious as to what my daemon would be if I existed in the world of Northern Lights, here she is. It figures that my daemon would be some sort of cat...