A severely underrated affair, I found The Golden Compass to be an enjoyable movie. For what is ostensibly a children's movie, it's easily one of the most interesting and dark films I've seen. It's definitely something I'd be glad to show my children.
A darker take on typical fantasy tropes, the young heroine with a surprising and not-completely-known past discovers that she has a special ability and a destiny greater than she ever imagined and wished for. It's typical children's fare, playing into the cliched plots that apparently reflect the interests and desires of children. But on top of all this is a film filled with the undertones and symbolism of religious theocracy, intellectual tyranny, and the destruction of the human soul to maintain the power of the church, all notions that resound well in this day and age, though feel somewhat hollow in the toned-down version crafted by director Chris Weitz, best known for filming guys fucking pastries. Weitz's take cuts out the heart of the story in attempting to skirt controversy and, instead, leaves a hollow shell of minimal character detail and pretty effects. The whole movie feels, well, childish in comparison to what it could be.
Despite that lack of substantial plot, the movie looks beautiful, as should any movie of this budget in this particular genre. It glows with a visual life that the story lacks and makes it easy to imagine threads of plot where there are none just by the weight of the visuals. This is only complemented by the acting, which is great all-around, even from the CGI creatures, and our heroine, Dakota Blue Richards, delivers a sharp performance. Lyra is a better central character than one will likely see in another children's movie, bypassing the usual phase of making stupid decisions and learning valuable lessons and going directly on to the part where she's smart and does everything you'd hope she would, a real delight for an audience that grows tired of the neverending stream of characters creating their own problems through bad decisions.
The movie does go all the places that'd you hope and is surprisingly adventurous without being tedious. It has battle scenes that should shame larger movies like The Lord Of The Rings and is shockingly violent for a family product. The movie is clever in knocking off plenty of people without shedding a drop of blood and there were moments of pure shock as the audience was floored by events.
All in all, it is a beautiful and exciting product, but often feels like just a product and not enough like a story, no matter how many talking polar bears appear on screen. If Weitz had more balls, perhaps this movie would be as brilliant as it could have been.