When 12-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua clambers into a wardrobe to steal a cloak, she doesn't find the land of Narnia on the other side. But she does begin a fantastical journey that puts her face-to-face with flying witches and talking polar bears. She learns that her uncle, an iconoclastic scientist named Lord Asriel, has discovered Dust, a substance he believes originates in parallel worlds. And she falls headfirst into a skirmish between him and an iron-fisted, church-like organization known as the Magisterium.
Along the way, she is given a truth-telling device known as an alethiometer (the golden compass) and told to keep it secret. She begins to hear unsettling rumors of children disappearing. And she's whisked into the custody of a glamorous but ruthless agent of the Magisterium named Mrs. Coulter.
The Magisterium, it turns out, believes Dust incites people to rebel against its control. So Mrs. Coulter is spearheading chilling, Nazi-like experiments on children, ostensibly to "preserve" their "innocence" (read: obedience). Specifically, Mrs. Coulter and her scientists have begun separating children from their dæmons (pronounced demons), animal spirits that physically embody each person's soul, accompany them throughout life—and serve as conduits for Dust.
Lyra's ensuing flight from Mrs. Coulter's clutches lands her in the protective care of a gypsy-like people known as the gyptians. Together they trek to the frozen north country to liberate the kidnapped children from a Magisterium compound. They're joined by massive armored bear Iorek Byrnison, an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby and the powerful witch queen Serafina Pekkala—all of whose resources they'll need to confront Mrs. Coulter's formidable forces.
Because the Magisterium is depicted as a fascist organization willing to psychologically and spiritually maim children to maintain its grip on power, the protagonists who resist it and fight for freedom represent the only right and rational response in the context of the film. Thus, the theme of resisting tyranny is at the heart of the story.
Lyra demonstrates courage on several occasions. She stops Lord Asriel from unknowingly drinking poison. She promises her friend Roger that if he is ever kidnapped she will come find him. (And she fulfills the promise when he is.) She also helps Iorek recover his stolen armor. The bear then pledges his allegiance and service to her. In a tense moment, Iorek tells Lyra, "When I am afraid, I will master my fear," a lesson she later applies.
Lyra is rescued from Magisterium henchmen by the gyptians, who prove to be brave and noble. Their king, John Faa, talks about how his people have been hardest hit by the spate of child abductions, and that he is determined to find and free them.
Even Mrs. Coulter risks her standing at one point to save Lyra.
Dæmons. Dust. And the Magisterium.
Every human being in Lyra's world has a dæmon, an external animal representation of their souls. Dæmons shift form while a child is growing up, settling on one particular animal in adolescence. Even though dæmons are a part of each person, they have a functionally independent identity and personality, appearing to be something along the lines of what our world refers to as familiar spirits. Bears, for their part, don't have dæmons, but Iorek (metaphorically?) describes his armor as his "soul."
Dust is mysterious matter that the Magisterium deems corrupting. To deal with it before it "settles" during their teenage years, children must be "inoculated" by having their dæmons severed from them, the Magisterium insists.
Characters are divided between protagonists who champion free will—defined as the right to think and believe whatever you want—and those who would suppress freedom of thought in the name of what they believe to be truth. Villainous officials (a group of people Box Office Mojo calls "the Vatican-ish Magisterium's minions") resemble pious caricatures of medieval cardinals—from their clerical garb to their accusations of "Heresy!" Fleeting references are made to their Authority, whom they believe to be God.
Hypocritically, Mrs. Coulter insinuates that the rules the Magisterium enforces don't apply to those at the top. She tells Lyra that it's best to "do as you please." Still, Coulter tries to convince Lyra that the Magisterium is interested in others' welfare. "It's what people need," she says, "It keeps things working by telling them what to do ... to keep them out of danger."
Another mystical force to be reckoned with is the alethiometer, a Ouija board-like device that we're told always provides truthful answers to questions asked of it (once its possessor learns how to "read" it). When Lyra is given the last known golden compass in her world, she's told, "It tells the truth; it glimpses things as they are. ... It enables you to see what others wish to hide." Narration informs us that the implement was crafted by scholars, but the source of its power isn't identified. When Lyra queries it, she has semi-hallucinatory visions of people and events as the answer "comes" to her.
Several times we hear about a witches' prophecy that they suspect Lyra will fulfill. These witches fly and can live hundreds of years. Brief mention is made of a metallic "spyfly" being powered by "a bad spirit."
Mrs. Coulter wears formfitting and cleavage-revealing dresses. Serafina makes one of her past lovers the topic of conversation while testing Lyra's ability to use the alethiometer.
It's strictly taboo to touch another person's dæmon, though Mrs. Coulter's (a particularly malevolent monkey) repeatedly handles other such animals very roughly. When someone's dæmon is in jeopardy, the person it's connected to feels it. A character's dæmon is choked, for example, and its "owner" feels as if he's being choked too. And when a window slams down on her monkey's paw, Mrs. Coulter experiences its pain.
As if setting her up as a domestic abuser, the filmmakers show us Mrs. Coulter slapping Lyra, then hugging her and telling her that she didn't want to do it. Later, Coulter angrily socks her dæmon in the face, then gathers the monkey into her arms for a cuddle.
Lyra escapes from Coulter, but is caught in a net by two of the Magisterium's lackeys. In turn, arrows from the gyptians kill the men. (When humans die—and quite a few do before the credits roll—their dæmons instantaneously evaporate in a dramatic dispersion of light particles.)
Asriel, meanwhile, is pursued by fierce locals in the north country who shoot at him with guns. Two of them fall to their deaths from an ice cliff. Asriel is hit repeatedly and captured.
A raiding party of Northerners known as Samoyeds descends upon Lyra and the gyptians. Members of both groups are killed via arrows, crossbow bolts and gunshots, and Lyra is captured and bound. Many are killed in a similar final battle between Mrs. Coulter's guards on one side and Iorek, the witches and the gyptians on the other. Iorek bites a man's head in this scene. And kidnapped children face a line of soldiers who aim their rifles directly at them.
Fierce mortal combat takes place between Iorek and the king of the bears. They pound one another savagely. The two most vicious moments in the fight are when the king bites Iorek and Iorek kills the king with a paw blow that sends the creature's jaw flying offscreen. (Somehow, both wounds are bloodless.)
[Spoiler Warning] At the movie's climax, Lyra is manhandled into the so-called "intercission" machine that separates people from their dæmons. But she's rescued and the device is destroyed. She's also attacked by small, buzzing metallic spyflys, one of which she later sets loose on Mrs. Coulter.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is inappropriately interjected twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The poison that Lyra prevents Lord Asriel from drinking has been mixed into alcohol. Several other scenes picture adults drinking wine. Lyra surreptitiously takes a sip herself once, then makes a face and spits it out.
When Lyra meets the bear Iorek, he's little more than a depressed indentured servant, because his armor has been taken from him. To drown his sorrow, he guzzles a bucket of whiskey, an action that's implied to be a regular occurrence. (Lyra is repulsed by his habit and admonishes him for it.)
Other Negative Elements
Lyra's bent for storytelling and twisting truth is an integral part of her character. She resents being called a "lady." And her precocious nature sometimes crosses over from rowdy fun into something a bit worse—such as when she carelessly lobs an apple-like fruit from a rooftop and hits a passing school professor. The film opens with Lyra playing a make-believe game with gyptian children; to win, she suggests that she'll find a poison gown, which she plans to "borrow."
The Golden Compass opens British author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, an award-winning but theologically controversial series of children's books. Though the series eventually finds two young protagonists and a supporting cast of witches, armored polar bears, scientists and angels confronting the Authority—a stand-in for God—those themes have been intentionally muted in this first cinematic act.
"How does one go about adapting a book that has controversial elements into a film that a very wide variety of people can enjoy, without betraying the original?" asks director Chris Weitz. "One tries to be clever about it. I realized that the overt stating of some of the themes in ... The Golden Compass would never—this is important to make clear—never ever get across the goal line. There isn't a wide enough audience for that—yet. If I wanted to popularize this series of extraordinary books and open them to a wider reading public than ever before, I was going to have to make some compromises."
Weitz went on to say that he hopes the film will be successful enough to allow him to direct the second and third installments without minimizing those stories' strident anti-church themes. "Whereas The Golden Compass had to be introduced to the public carefully, the religious themes in the second and third books can't be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books. ... I will not be involved with any 'watering down' of books two and three."
But even watered down, The Golden Compass is still awash in a twisted worldview and dark spirituality, the anticipation of which has prompted many Christian groups to point out the damage some of Pullman's themes can do. Even secular observers have noted that the film's thinly veiled ecclesiastical allusions can be spotted easily. Newsweek writer Devin Gordon noted, "While references to 'the church' are gone from the film, no one over four feet tall could mistake the Magisterium for anything but an oppressive theocracy." That notion is supported by church historian Dr. Quinn Fox, who observes, "The most telling aspect of His Dark Materials ... is that the Reformation never happened in the world of The Golden Compass. Indeed, Pullman's simplistically harsh view of the church and God posit a power-hungry, misanthropic institution out of control, and a detached, domineering God devoid of grace."
One of the film's visual high points has to be the sight of Iorek bounding through the snow in slow motion with Lyra burrowing into his shaggy white fur. And it's scenes like this, shown in most of the film's trailers, that have the power to spark interest and imagination in young viewers who might be unfamiliar with His Dark Materials.
Such warm and cuddly sneak peeks promise something this movie doesn't deliver. This epic journey to a world in which a theocratic agency kidnaps and tortures children is grim and joyless. The violence may be generally bloodless, but the tale's tone is anything but inviting. No matter what the ads may say, it fundamentally lacks the wonder and the splendor of C.S. Lewis' and J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy creations—not to mention their grasp of spiritual truth.