In an interview with The Golden Compass writer-director Chris Weitz in Script Magazine, Weitz confessed he had doubts about his own ability to direct the film, after he'd written the script, and in fact had dropped out of that role. The studio, New Line, found a new director, Anand Tucker, only to have that ultimately would resign from the job. Weitz came back, feeling newly reenergized about it and more confident. I appreciate Weitz's candor here, and after seeing the film I have to confess that while his screenplay adaptation is solid - if arguably a bit watered down - I found myself also doubting he was the right choice to direct it, too. It's choppy in places and there are times the action bogs down in pacing and staging. However, it's visually striking, with quite a few things you've never seen on film before, and remains far more provocative a children's fantasy than most in the genre. Also, just Philip Pullman's books aren't blockbusters in the Harry Potter vein, it's not quite fair to hold the film to the same box office expectations (even if this first film did cost a fortune).
The real challenge for Weitz or whomever tackles the subsequent two Dark Materials adaptations, especially the last one, is that Pullman does become increasingly wordy and preachy (even if his philosophizing is interesting to a large degree - at least for adults) and converting that to cinemqatic storytelling will be arduous. But the first film, despite some clunkiness, and the apparently truncated ending (which was shot, but not used - word is there's a chance they'd use it in the next film - if there is a next film).
Clearly many of the film's protestors emanating from the Catholic League and elsewhere had not seen the film, and possibly many of them hadn't even read the books, only what was excerpted for them in pamphlets. But this is not even the point. Pullman does question religion - even if the film changes The Church to the more bureaucratic organization - but our abilities to see and decide for ourselves should not be hindered. The Catholic League and other protestors are already claiming victory for the film's not having raked in the hoped for box office (though I think those expectations, even with the film's budget, were a bit unrealistic). It could also be that the film isn't perfect, or that it's hard to market or explain the story. But the film is worth seeing and discussing.
However imperfect, and despite some amount of the occasionally choppy editing, the narrative perhaps victimized in the losing of various more potentially incendiary scenes, there is much about The Golden Compass to recommend. Like Pan's Labyrinth, the film sports a plucky young heroine, Lyra Belacqua, who is wonderfully played by talented newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who drives the story forward. The story also, as in the book, offers up a wonderfully compelling concept in the form of "daemons" - the way a person's soul resides alongside them in animal form (Lyra's young soul is not complete yet, so naturally her daemon changes animals frequently, most frequently seen as a ferret). The daemons are well realized in effect, even if it also makes for one confusing battle sequence near the end (every time a person is killed, their daemon naturally dies too, in a sparkly cloud that disintegrates) and is important ultimately in the film's dark plot. Lyra befriends a polar bear warrior, Lorek Byrnison (voiced well, if distractingly, by Ian McKellen - I kept picturing Gandalf when the bear had lines*) and their relationship is quite compelling. As is the realization of the central object, the alethiometer or golden compass, a device that reveals the answer to any question asked it by a trained user and which helps guide Lyra on her journey. It comes to life in tastefully computer generated flashes, asides, and is a believable enough as a physical object of wonder.
Special note should be paid to the battle scene between lorek and his rival bear, the anointed king who took his place; they may be CGI bears but it's breathtakingly exciting, even if the sequence feels a bit truncated.
Nicole Kidman's Mrs. Coulter makes for a creepy antagonist, as does her monkey daemon, and Sam Elliot is well cast as the Texan aeronaut who assists Lyra. Freddie Highmore does well as the voice of Lyra's daemon, Pantalaimon. Daniel Craig, Lord Asriel, Lyra's adventurer uncle, makes an impression - but barely, as he's not a big part of this story. He's bigger in the next two...and here's hoping they make them.
I fear that they'll skip the sequels because of the cost vs. the box
office of this one (though I guarantee it'll do better on DVD, and
maybe even develop a cult following) and fear of more religious
protestation, but I hope that people ignore those worries, and go see
the first one anyway. As a way to thumb your noses at the close-minded
people who tried to keep you from seeing it, but also to see a lovely,
if flawed, fantasy.
* According to Empire Magazine and the LA Times (via wikipedia): Nonso Anozie had recorded lines for the part of Iorek Byrnison, but was replaced by McKellen at a late stage as New Line wanted a bigger name in the role. New Line president of production Toby Emmerich admitted he "never thought [Anozie] sounded like Iorek" and while he initially trusted director Weitz's casting decision, he "never stopped thinking that this guy didn't sound right." The recasting was against Weitz's wishes, though he later said "if you're going to have anyone recast in your movie, you're happy it's Ian McKellen."