The Golden Compass

Published: .
Updated: .
David Swindle
Grade: B

The tragedy of the controversy surrounding the fantasy film "The Golden Compass" is not that it's entirely unnecessary.

That some people - Bill Donohue and The Catholic League - are boycotting the film is not the problem. That there is a great focus on the themes of the film and a discussion about it really is not that bad. In fact it's actually a good thing in a way. It adds another angle to the film experience. You're on alert looking for just what is boycott-worthy about this big budget, special-effects-laden adventure epic. As a result I paid much closer attention than I otherwise would. (And for this I thank Donohue.)

No, the problem is that not everyone is so attuned to the debate. There are many, many people out there who only hear a snippet of what's going on, make an uninformed decision, and that's that. People hear that the film is "anti-God," "anti-Christian," "anti-Catholic," or "anti-religion" and decide that they're not going to see it.

This is unfortunate because they're missing out on a really fun film that's likely to offend no one's religious beliefs.

"The Golden Compass" takes place in an exciting parallel universe. In this world everyone has a daemon, which is their soul outside of their body in the form of an animal which accompanies them everywhere, talks to them, and is spiritually linked to them. Children's daemons shape-shift from animal to animal since a child has not settled into who they are. The daemon of our hero, an orphan girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) goes from cat to ferret to bird to moth and back. The daemons of adults have assumed a form appropriate to their character and personality whether it be cat, insect, snake, monkey, or rabbit.

There are other fantastic elements to this universe. The north is ruled by talking polar bears that wear armor. The seas are dominated by nomadic "Gyptians." The skies belong to witches and air captains with hot air balloon-like contraptions. The film's malevolent force is an organization named the Magisterium which seeks to dominate over the world, insisting that everyone believe its particular dogma.

The film follows li'l orphan Lyra as she's drawn into a series of discoveries that threaten the Magisterium's conception of the world. Lyra is entrusted with an alethiometer, the golden compass of the title. It is a mysterious device able to tell the truth to those capable of reading it. Over the course of the film Lyra will encounter many exciting characters and get into numerous adventures. She'll clash with Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) of the Magisterium. She'll befriend one of the armored polar bears of the north. Most importantly she will seek to rescue the children who have been disappearing.

It's an engrossing picture. Made as a result of the success of "The Lord of the Rings," "The Golden Compass" is certainly as entertaining as the fantasy movies we've seen emerge over the past half decade. I was hooked for the full two hours.

The film's not without its problems, though. The primary issue is that it's far too obvious the filmmakers were rushing. I haven't read the book but I feel instinctively as though the film really should have been at least another half hour long. (Expect an extended-cut DVD release.) The pace is just far too fast for what we've come to expect for a picture of this nature. There's just so much plot to plow through that we simply do not get enough time to really get to know the large cast of characters. This is sad because there are really some terrific performances here. Kidman makes an excellent villain - a role we have not seen her take too often. Daniel Craig is also fantastic as Lyra's uncle Lord Asriel, an adventurer whose discoveries threaten the Magisterium. Also stealing every scene he's in is Sam Elliott as Lee Scorsby, an air pilot who guides Lyra to Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKlellan,) who will become her armored bear ally. Ideally these characters would get to be explored further in sequels. (Unfortunately, with the film's less than spectacular opening box office it's questionable whether the next two films will get made.)

And it's really a disappointment that the film didn't slow down and delve deeper into its themes because that's really where the film is at its most exciting. The idea at the heart of the film is not anti-God or anti-religion. It's anti-authority. The scandalous message encoded into the film's fantasy is one of rebellion against forces that seek to impose their way of life upon you. Films with such values always earn a special place in my heart.

It's really kind of embarrassing to be against the idea of questioning and challenging authority. So ultimately the whole point of Donohue's boycott is that parents should not take their children to the film because it might lead the kiddies to read the books which are allegedly more explicit in their criticism of Christianity and organized religion. I have not read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so I cannot vouch for the source material's true nature. Are they really as simplistic as "atheism for kids" as Donohue claims? I asked two churchgoing, fantasy readers who had consumed the entire trilogy - my kid sister and father - what they thought about Donohue's description of the books. Both dismissed the simplistic caricature of what is apparently a pretty deep series.

I'm sympathetic towards parents who would want to shield their children from more mature material. As a parent you probably don't want your grade-schooler or pre-teen reading books with explicit sex, disturbing violence, and tons of profanity. My sister's almost in high school, and while she most likely could handle it, I'd probably hesitate lending her my copy of American Psycho or the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom. But the idea that children should be shielded from questioning religion or thinking different ideas about the nature of reality? The word "embarrassing" seems to be appropriate again.

Does Donohue honestly believe that some altar boy is going to see The Golden Compass, read the book, and it will somehow negatively affect his faith? That it will lead him to hell?

Ultimately Donohue is continuing a long Catholic tradition best summed up by an author you really don't want the kids reading if you don't want them thinking critically. As Robert Anton Wilson said: "Here's to the good nuns for telling me what books not to read!"