Lowdown: The secular antidote to Narnia.
Review: On the first day, the studio gods made The Lord of the Rings. Witnessing how much money they've made, they went on to make Narnia on the second day. Despite the inferior quality the money still poured in, so on the third day the studios went to do The Golden Compass. And then I saw the film and decided that it's good.
Indeed, the three film franchises could not have any more similar background stories. All are very British in nature, all our swords and sorcery fantasy stories, and all involve smaller characters showing that size doesn't matter. Unlike its two predecessors, I did not read the book on which the film is based.
In The Golden Compass' case, the hero is Lyra, a little girl growing up in a university not unlike Oxford or Cambridge.
There are two key things we need to know about Lyra's world. The first is that in this movie's world, souls live outside their bodies and take the shape of an animal, thus always providing Lyra's filmmakers the option of having someone she can talk to instead of using monologues or other means of plot progression (the movie implies that in our world we carry our souls inside our bodies, a statement that made me want to puke given what I think of this very overstretched and completely non evidence based concept of "soul"). The second thing we need to know is that Lyra's world is a world in conflict: on one side there are the universities who strive to know more about the world, whereas on the counter side there is The Magisterium, an organization that does its best to stop investigations and shut open minds so that they can maintain their traditional power over the population.
Lyra, and her accompanying soul, are destined for greatness; which is why Nicole Kidman is so interested in her. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Kidman's interest in Lyra is a very selfish one. Kidman, we learn, is a Magisterium agent; Lyra escapes from her clutches into an adventure full of fantasy, spanning across the globe and featuring magical fighting bears and witches. Eventually Lyra stumbles upon a vile plot by The Magisterium and goes to the north pole to sort things out.
The second thing that strikes you when you watch The Golden Compass is the imaginative nature of the tale. This is classic fantasy stuff, with magical creatures does fancy stuff and things that can't take place in our world occurring at the whim of the script writer. For the genre, I guess the film is quite good; so good it made me want to go and read the book[s], or, for all I care, another Lord of the Rings like clone of similar quality.
Unlike Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass the film is rather compromised. Too many things happen for reasons unclear, and too many characters are introduced with some heavy name actors playing a relatively minor part. Take Daniel Craig, Mr 007 himself, as an example: He hardly does anything in the film, although it is clear he has a major role to come in the series' sequels. And there is the problem for you: Not only is The Golden Compass trying too hard to duplicate a thick book into a film, it also has to contend with not being able to provide an enclosed story to begin with. The Two Towers, for example, faced a similar problem but managed it by severely straying from the original book to provide some enclosed beginning and ending; Compass doesn't.
However, all of the above are not the main things I took out of Compass. The first thing that stroke me when I watched The Golden Compass is how different it is to the Narnia series in its relationship with religion: whereas Narnia is a pile of propaganda advocating faith, The Golden Compass is advocating inquisitive natures and asking questions. The evil Magisterium, in its part, is modeled so accurately after the Catholic Church I wonder whether any lawsuits were dealt with by the studios: the characters, the buildings, the dress ups - and let's face it, the way the junta deals its dealings - all reeks of the church.
Nicole Kidman's character probably symbolizes the relationship with the church best with the way she deals with Lyra: loving her most of the time, but clearly showing off her fangs whenever Lyra strays from what Kidman wants her to do. Altogether very similar to the church (and to virtually all other religions, for that matter), that pretend to love you and represent a loving god - until, that is, you commit the ultimate crime of starting to ask questions.
I cannot deny that The Golden Compass' attitude towards faith and its institutions on one hand, and its advocation for free inquisitive minds on the other, have earnt the film a lot of points with me.
Worst scene: The film's end, because there is no end; The Golden Compass finishes off rather abruptly in anticipation of a sequel. This really pissed me off, because otherwise I really liked the film. I wonder how I would have felt after watching Fellowship of the Ring if I didn't read the books and know what's going to happen anyway; I suspect I would have felt the way I did at the end of Compass.
Technical assessment: The Blu-ray's picture quality is nothing short of amazing, so amazing it exposes the film's overuse of CGI in virtually every scene. The sound, however, is even better: This DTS HD soundtrack has to qualify as the best movie sound experience I am yet to have the pleasure of listening to. If only all films could be like that!
Overall: Despite all of its deficiencies I liked The Golden Compass a lot; if it wasn't for its ending it would have been a personal favorite. Till the sequels arrive and I can see the whole picture, though, it would have to settle with 3.5 out of 5 stars.