Given the pre-release controversy over its religious and allegedly anti-Catholic elements, I had every intention of reviewing The Golden Compass when it opened last December. I didn't get around to commenting on it then, but I'm happy to do so now in the context of last week's release of the film on DVD.
The movie is the most gorgeously rendered cinematic fantasy of recent years apart from the Lord of the Rings cycle, and its special effects deservedly won the Academy Award. Adapted from novelist Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (which I haven't read), religious matters do constitute the plot of The Golden Compass. Set in a parallel universe, a young girl's best friend goes missing and is later found -- missing his animal daemon, or soul. The girl, Lyra, subsequently begins to uncover a sinister conspiracy by the all-powerful Magisterium to separate children from their daemons, apparently in an effort to make them more obedient adults.
The cast, which includes Dakota Blue Richards (as Lyra), Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green and the voice of Ian McKellen is excellent, and Nicole Kidman reveals previously unseen dark hues as the treacherous Mrs. Coulter. The screenplay by Chris Weitz, who also directs, is impressive for its willingness to speak intelligently to the film's primary intended audience of young people rather than dumbing down the material. Naturally, not everything that can be explained in a book can be conveyed on film either due to length or budget constraints. What didn't seem to make the translation is an adequate description of what "Dust" is all about; it might be Pullman's concept of God, or the spiritual material that constitutes and animates life, or the essence of the human soul.
We'll apparently have to wait for additional movies to find out, as The Golden Compass ends on an unresolved note. There were initial reports that the religious controversy around the film and its less-than-spectacular US box office (although it did much better overseas) had doomed any future movies in the series. More recent indicators are that the sequels will be made, but on a less-expensive scale, and possibly discarding the religious aspects of the storyline. That would be a mistake in my opinion. While The Golden Compass provides only an introduction, it is enough to get me interested in the continuation of Lyra's cinematic adventures and Pullman's philosophical/theological ruminations.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.