It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"The Golden Compass" is a darker, deeper fantasy epic than the "Rings" trilogy, "The Chronicles of Narnia" or the "Potter" films. It springs from the same British world of quasi-philosophical magic, but creates more complex villains and poses more intriguing questions. As a visual experience, it is superb. As an escapist fantasy, it is challenging. Teenagers may be absorbed and younger children may be captivated; some kids in between may be a little conflicted, because its implications are murky.
They weren't murky in the original 1995 novel, part of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, a best seller in Britain, less so here. Pullman's evil force, called the Magisterium in the books, represents organized religion, and his series is about no less than the death of God, who he depicts as an aged, spent force. This version by New Line Cinema and writer-director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") leaves aside religion and God, and presents the Magisterium as sort of a Soviet dictatorship or Big Brother. The books have been attacked by American Christians over questions of religion; their popularity in the U.K. may represent more confident believers whose response to other beliefs is to respond, rather than suppress.
For most families, such questions will be beside the point. Attentive as I was, I was unable to find anything anti-religious in the movie, which works above all as an adventure. The film centers on a young girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), in an alternative universe vaguely like Victorian England. An orphan raised by the scholars of a university not unlike Oxford or Cambridge, she is the niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who entrusts her with the last surviving Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, a device that quite simply tells the truth. The Magisterium has a horror of the truth, because it represents an alternative to its thought control; the battle in the movie is about no less than man's preservation of free will.
Lyra's friend Roger (Ben Walker) disappears, one of many recently kidnapped children, and Lyra hears rumors that the Magisterium has taken them to an Arctic hideaway. At her college, she meets Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who suspiciously offers her a trip to the north aboard one of those fantasy airships that looks like it may be powered by steam. And the adventure proper begins.