If the 2005 film Chronicles of Narnia has proven anything, religious allegory in film is A-OK with movie audiences. Most of these religious metaphors are from Christian theology. It's not controversial, and shouldn't be, when these kinds of themes are in a film. There's one important caveat: the rule should also extend to when atheism is present in films.
The Golden Compass is an adaptation of the famous children's novel Northern Lights, the first part of Phillip Pullman's god-killing "His Dark Materials" trilogy. There's a surprising amount of controversy over The Golden Compass because of Phillip Pullman's avowed atheism and there's a certain level of anti-religious sentiment in the film. Every time a character speaks of "the Magesterium" replace it with "the Catholic Church" and you'll understand this theme in the film. It's surprising to see the backlash and boycotting of the film--sponsored by groups like the Catholic League--because of some of the more fantastical content in the film. It's somewhat hard to take the film as any form of dissertation on religion when people's souls live as talking animals outside of their body and a prominent character throughout is an anthropomorphic polar bear voiced by Sir Ian McKellan who fights other anthropomorphic polar bears.
Like all kids' movies, the film features a precocious child that is ready and raring to reject authority at any given moment. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is a young girl stifled by the oppressive atmosphere of the Oxford College, where she lives with her best friend, servant-boy Roger (Ben Walker). All she really wants to do is meet the ice bears up in the north and experience life. She gets the opportunity when the ultra-aryan Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) whisks her away to the capital city (unnamed, but presumably London) and Roger soon disappears. Soon enough Lyra finds out that Coulter is involved with the kidnappings and runs away into the dark reaches of the city being chased by nefarious looking men.
This all happens in the first 30 minutes and it comes by so fast and furious that it leaves the audience mired in plot details that are only touched, but not elaborated on. If the summary seems confusing, that's because the plot itself is confusing. The major complaint of the film is a simple one: the editing and pacing of the film is all over the place. It's an entertaining romp and children will adore the characters and the story. It's told so quickly, though, that it doesn't work for older members of the audience--plot points are left open, and characters who should be important just hang out in the middle of scenes. A notorious moment in the film is Christopher Lee's cameo--all he does is say a line and then just skulk about in the background chewing the scenery.
The first act of the movie is almost worthless. It's pure exposition, trying to get everything out of the way and fit everything from the book into the movie. The film clocks in just under two hours and obviously the filmmakers wanted to keep it short so kid's butts wouldn't wiggle in the seats. Unfortunately this might end up causing both kids and adults wondering just what the hell is going on.
In spite of itself, the Golden Compass manages to be a fun holiday movie. Despite its numerous flaws, it manages to charm with its gorgeous visuals and quirky story. Yes, there's a giant talking polar bear and various types of talking animals throughout the film. There are a bunch of witches that just swoop in at the end of the film--mentioned only once or twice and then suddenly they're saving the day. It's absolutely goofy and kind of dumb. If you can embrace your inner youth, the Golden Compass is a fun little popcorn flick--though the extra special, Ã¼ber-fancy extended DVD edition that would inevitably come out near Christmas 2008 would be the best investment.