Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
The series of books on which this film is based has been called one of the most dangerous series ever to come out of Great Britain. Many of the blatant atheistic, anti-religious undertones have been removed from the screenplay in the hopes of placating conservative audiences, but it failed to work. The Golden Compass failed at the American box office, but went on to make billions on an international market.
Numerous worlds exist beyond our comprehension, and in one of them, the soul of mortal humans exists outside their bodies in the form of an animal spirit guide called a "daemon." In one of these worlds, orphaned and abandoned by her parents, young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) has grown up under the watchful care of her uncle and guardian, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) at the college that employs him. A rule-breaker and someone who "doesn't care to be told what to do," Lyra and her daemon Pan (voiced by Freddie Highmore) stumble one day across knowledge of "Dust." This magical element is forbidden in their world by a governing power known as the Magisterium. In an attempt to prevent Dust from corrupting the next generation, their organization has been collectively kidnapping and indoctrinating children. Lord Asriel has found evidence of Dust in the frozen north and desires to investigate, in the hope of using it to pass through into other worlds. During his absence, Lyra comes to the attention of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a member of the Magisterium who desires to offer Lyra an opportunity to see the elusive North.
Before her departure, the dean of the college gives Lyra a golden compass that can answer any question you put to it. They are extremely rare and few people can read them, but Lyra can. He only cautions her to prevent Mrs. Coulter from discovering she has it, but that proves impossible and soon Lyra and Pan are running for their lives. Along the way, they join forces with an armored polar bar known as Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellen), and one of the northern witches (Eva Green), hoping to rescue the abducted children. The result is a highly engaging film that is deeper than it first appears. On a purely cinematic level, everything about this production is magnificent, from the brilliant script to the wonderful acting, the masterful CGI, and the fantastic costume design.
Having never read the book, I cannot compare the two but it is obvious that a lot of creative talent went into both. Lyra is a very likable young heroine and I must admit that while I am not fond of the spirits being called "daemons," their concept (that a human's soul is out of its body, but always accompanies them) is ingenious. The person, once they have lost their soul, becomes haunted and full of despair. Likewise, if a daemon is harmed, the human experiences the same pain. The sub plot about the armored bear who finds hope and triumph as a result of Lyra's compassion for him is very touching, and many of the characters are ones you will never forget -- from the cowboy of the skies with his hair daemon, to Serafina, the beautiful but mysterious witch who appears in their midst. Minor plot points are somewhat predictable, but others come as a surprise, and the movie was so moving in a few places that it brought me to tears.
Even if I had not been warned beforehand that Pullman's novels carry a decidedly anti-religious and heretical slant, the symbolism involved in the film, even significantly "toned down," would have been obvious to me. The Magisterium represents the Church -- setting out to indoctrinate children so that when they grow up, they will be impervious to Dust (also known as atheist enlightenment), determined to stamp out all freedom of liberty, and turn humans into mindless drones. The first book in the series is less offensive than the rest, but the conclusion of the trilogy has enlightened humans rising up to slay the "god" of these worlds because they realize what a terrible thing he is. Words in the script make this profoundly obvious. For example, whenever anyone speaks against the Magisterium, they are called heretics.
Pullman has accused the allegory-themed Narnia novels of attempting to "indoctrinate children." He has said some truly nasty things about C.S. Lewis. Then he turns around and does exactly the same thing in his books -- subtle symbolism intent on planting seeds of doubt in youngsters. Is it a threat? To an impressionable mind, perhaps. To mine, no. I experienced no doubt or uncertainty in the viewing, only profound sadness that such a God-given talent could be put to such use in protesting against God's existence, and attempting to slam the Church. I have more compassion now for Pullman than I did before I saw the film, because it is obvious that he is searching for Truth. The Golden Compass earns its PG13 rating for intense thematic elements and some violence. Humans and daemons are mowed down in fights. We see spirit guides going up in sparks as they die, indicating their human has been killed. A brutal polar bear fight ends with one of the bears killing the other, after tearing off its jaw (non-graphic, but unsettling).
Is the film something that should be avoided by Christian audiences? I don't know. I think that just as atheists have a right to prevent their kids from watching or reading Narnia, Christian parents have a right to avoid Pullman. But the books and the movie are nothing to be scared of.