To begin with, I haven’t read the book by Philip Pullman that The Golden Compass is based on. I also don’t know the details of Pullman’s feud with the Catholic Church.
Apparently all the elements of the book that might offend Catholics have been removed from the movie–infuriating fans of the book. Nevertheless the Catholic League has called for a boycott of the movie on the grounds that it might encourage children to read the book. The Vatican has condemned the movie as “cold and hopeless” because it does not hold out the possibility of salvation through Jesus Christ. (It seems to me that very few movies could pass this test.)
All I can do is evaluate the movie in isolation: how does it stand up as a piece of entertainment?
Actually it works very well. After a somewhat off-putting start it turns into a gripping story set in a richly-imagined fantasy universe.
The story is set in an alternate world that resembles England in the early twentieth century, except that people’s souls walk beside them in the form of talking animals called Daemons. At night witches pass through the sky, and the lands to the north are ruled by armored polar bears.
The heroine is Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards). She is not a sweet girl, in fact she is rather headstrong and sullen, but that’s OK. She is going to need to be tough in order to survive. She has spent most of her life at Jordan College, a tweedy institution dedicated to academic freedom and scientific inquiry.
She has been under the protection of her uncle, Lord Asriel, but he leaves on an expedition to the far North, seeking to unlock the secrets of “dust”, a mysterious substance that can open the gates to other worlds. This earns him the enmity of The Magisterium, an organization of slimy bastards that seems to run the world and wants to suppress all knowledge of “dust.”
Soon Lyra is taken away from the college by Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) a beautiful lady who is clearly up to no good. Before she leaves, the head of the college gives her a golden compass or “alethiometer” which can reveal the truth if you can figure out how to use it.
Furthermore there is a gang called “the Gobblers” that is kidnapping children for some nefarious purpose. They seem to be connected with Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium somehow. When one of Lyra’s friends is kidnapped she sets out on a quest to rescue him, accumulating a variety of allies along the way.
The movie is entertaining, but probably a bit too violent for younger children. The ending is reasonably satisfying, but since this is intended to be the first part of a trilogy is does not wrap everything up.