If you're adapting any sort of previously-created material into a movie and you want to do it properly, you've basically got to be beholden to TWO things: You're vision as a filmmaker and the vision of the original-material's creator, and not necessarily in that order. Compromising to anyone else will, generally, leave you with a lesser product. Bottom line.
MILD POTENTIAL SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT:
So, here's how we got here: About seven years ago, the film world got rocked hard by the one-two punch of "Harry Potter" and "Lord of The Rings" being both massively-successful and massively-excellent. Actually making a fortune off something that you're NOT ashamed to admit you took part is an increasingly rare development in Hollywood (see: "Bay, Michael - career-of") and everyone wanted in on the party, which amounted to the entire Barnes & Noble Young Adult Fantasy section getting bought up and filed under "greenlight." Unlike most "me-too!" aquisition frenzies, a fair amount of these projects have actually made it to the screen; some of it good ("Lemony Snicket,") some of it grand ("Narnia,") some of it problematic ("Eragon") and some of it ghastly ("The Dark is Rising.") And somewhere, among all this, someone either clueless or amazingly optimistic snuck Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy onto the list.
A walking answer to the question "What if Richard Dawkins and Terry Brooks made a baby, and he was a bit of a humorless twit?," Pullman fancies himself the Bizarro World C.S. Lewis. To that end, he conjured up the "Materials" kid-lit cycle as a kind of atheist/humanist counterpunch to Christian allegory of Lewis' "Narnia." The key difference between the two works (aside from, of course, the whole "entire worldview" thing) comes down to that word, allegory: The "Narnia" cycle remains (though not without it's hiccups) merely evocative of it's authors beliefs most of the way through, while Pullman opts to toss the "juicy parts" right up front with his narrative of a multiverse-spanning war between free-thinkers, scientists and (just for good measure) psuedo-pagan "witches" and the sinister despotic forces of, well... God. As in specifically the Christian God. As in I-Am-Who-Am. That God. Yes, irony of ironies: For all that time that the Christian Right spent turning itself into a pretzel trying to convince their followers that the much more popular Mr. Potter and his friends were part of a covert assault on fundamentalism; the stuff of their literal nightmares was sitting quietly by itself just a few rows down the bookshelf. Oops.
So, not only are the filmmakers saddled with material that's (literally) BEGGING for an angry protest, it's also a profoundly strange creature even without all the "topical" stuff: Starting out in a "steampunk" Victorian fantasy-land of airborne Witches and talking, armor-clad Polar Bears - where everyone's soul lives outside their body as a shape-shifting animal spirit "daemon" - and getting progessively more bizzare as it starts dimension-hopping in the second two installments. This is the sort of material that requires the sort of uncompromising boldness described above. To work properly, it would need both a genre-appropriate mini-epic running time and a total commitment for better or for worse to the actual themes at play. "The Golden Compass," unfortunately, has neither of these things... so it's a wonder it doesn't completely come apart. This isn't a bad film at all, in fact for it's often-problematic genre it's actually pretty excellent in parts. It just never really works as a whole.
Hoping to head-off the innevitable (and, for a change, not-entirely nonsensical) ire of religious groups, the filmmakers have attempted to cut the "specifics" out of the mythos. Thus, the fascist, heretic-oppressing Magesterium is merely "suggestive" of The Vatican, while The Authority is never explicitly identified as God. Nice effort (though how they're going to work out the second two volumes where the theology gets REALLY explicit is beyond me) but ultimately a waste: It's done them no good, as the expected protesters and rabble-rousers are having a cow anyway; and more immediately it's given them even MORE stuff to have to explain in a movie that's already way, way too front-loaded with exposition.
At least 2/3rds of the film is taken up just nailing down who all the characters, groups, sides, places and gizmos are; and when it finally DOES pick up real speed in the third act it's just a bit too brief. Indeed, a pair of climactic battle scenes (a shockingly cover-the-kiddie's-eyes violent fistfight between two Polar Bear knights and the obligatory "everybody versus everybody else" open-field melee) are gloriously realized... but it's all too little, too late. Unable to flesh Pullman's narrative out to it's needed pace and seemingly unwilling to do a heavy "make this work in the time we have" rewrite, they've settled for a bullet-points recap of the book with the big moments all accounted for but no great ressonance connecting them.
It's all very well-cast, with newcomer Dakota Blue Richards proving herself a tremendous find in the lead role of Lyra. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig have the main "name" adult roles as Miss Coulter, an icy villianess kidnapping poor children for horrific Magesterium experiments and Lord Asriel, a Magesterium-defying scholar with his own agenda; while the expected who's-who of stalwart British character talent dutifully fill out the margins as the various kings, scholars, doctors, "Gyptians" and witches needed to deliver heavily-accented chunks of expository revelation every ten minutes or so. Christopher Lee turns up for about 30 seconds, while Ian McKellan has the Bruce-Lee-as-Kato role as Iorek Byrnison, an "Armored Bear" who becomes Lyra's right-hand ass-kicker.
When it comes down to it, I was never expecting this to be the equal of "Rings," "Potter" or "Narnia," chiefly because the material just isn't quite as good starting out (Pullman IS a fine talent in the genre, make no mistake, but take out the look-at-me Catholic-baiting and this particular series is strictly second-tier) but there's no getting around the fact that this film just isn't anywhere near as good as it could have been if they'd just had a little more (sorry, Mr. Pullman) faith in the material. There's a great cast here, occupying a fascinating and splendidly-realized otherworld and participating in a genuinely intriguing story. But it's rushing through everything much too fast, and kid-gloving it's way through it's most interesting ideas. It's afraid of it's own shadow, and thats not where any fantasy movie wants to be.
FINAL RATING: 6/10