Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has gained a loyal fanbase in the 10 years since the first book, The Golden Compass, was published, and for good reason: Pullman's universe is metaphorically dense and dizzyingly imaginative, populated by tremendously likeable characters fighting for the highest stakes imaginable. The bulk of the series is set in an alternate version of our own universe, governed by an oppressive religious body called the Magisterium. The way Pullman tells it, institutionalized religion warps and perverts all that is good and natural in humanity, and it's up to one young girl, Lyra Belacqua, to overthrow the entire festering system.
Heavy stuff for a kids' book, much less a kids' movie—but the trilogy contains so much fantasy film gold that it's easy to understand why New Line snapped up the rights, despite the controversial subject matter. From armored polar bears to shape-shifting animal sidekicks, Pullman's universe is packed with kid-friendly concepts just begging to be brought to (computer-generated) life—and on a superficial level, at least, The Golden Compass' director, Chris Weitz, does Pullman's vision justice. While acknowledging that he was an "underdog" to direct the film (his previous credits include About a Boy and American Pie, not exactly big-budget fantasy epics), Weitz told me in a phone interview that he was given the job, at least in part, because of his "tremendous enthusiasm for the books." That's the party line, of course, but in this case, I buy it, as Weitz has pulled off that rarest of feats in adapting a popular book for the screen: The film looks just like it's supposed to.
The film follows the scrappy Lyra (a perfectly cast Dakota Blue Richards) on her quest to rescue her friend Roger (Ben Walker), who has been abducted by a group of sinister Magisterium scientists who are kidnapping children. Along the way, Lyra teams up with an armored bear, a mustachioed pilot, and a band of gypsies—and she's accompanied all the while by her "daemon," a shape-shifting animal companion.
The casting here is spot on, from Nicole Kidman as the sexy-but-sadistic villainess to Sam Elliott's bemused aeronaut; the effects are gorgeous, and so are the sweeping arctic icescapes that Lyra must cross to rescue her friend. Even the CG animals are surprisingly not annoying—a fight between two armored polar bears is one of the highlights of the film.
But what about the whole "overthrowing the monarchy of heaven" bit? In a predictably spineless move, all direct references to religion have been dropped from The Golden Compass. According to Weitz, "The vast majority of people who love these books don't see it as an atheistic recruiting tool. They see it first as a beautiful story, and an exciting story, and one that supports all kinds of wonderful virtues."
That may or may not be the case, but the fact remains: The omnipresence of religion is crucial to the narrative urgency of the books. By retaining plot points that tie into religious and metaphysical themes—but avoiding the actual themes themselves—Weitz has drained the narrative of its impetus and cohesion. The bad guys don't seem particularly bad, key concepts are poorly explained, and the hasty ending is a painfully transparent attempt to end on an uplifting, sequel-ready note.
Despite these criticisms, I'm cautiously optimistic about the sequels. When I asked him what he would do differently if he got the chance to direct the second and third movies in the trilogy, Weitz told me that he would "adhere more closely to the letter of Pullman's books." That bodes well for future projects that have perfected all the bells and whistles of Pullman's universe, yet hopefully won't gut the elements that make the trilogy truly epic.