Based on HIS DARK MATERIALS, a trilogy of books for young people by Philip Pullman, this film was supposed to have been the first of a trilogy of films as well. But Jeff, you ask, where are the other two films? Well, there's a funny story about that which I will get to.
But first, the film: Although I have not read Pullman's books, I saw this film when it came out in '07 and it was perfectly fine. As with any book translated to film, some things from the book make it into the film, some don't: that is the nature of condensing a book (which has the luxury of--and space for--exposition) into a 90 or 120 minute experience. Of course not having read the books, I was not aware of anything missing, or added for that matter. I can only react to what was presented to me in the film. And with some spectacular special effects and an equally spectacular cast (Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Sir Ian McKellan, Sam Elliott, Ian McShane, Eva Green, Freddie Highmore, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee), I found the film to be well done, entertaining, visually alluring (with its marvelous Jules-Verne-esque/ Edwardian/ 1930s design), and very well acted.
The story takes place in an alternate universe, on an earth slightly different from ours, where each human being has a soul that lives outside of the body in the form of an animal companion. This separate repository for a soul is called a "dæmon," pronounced DEE-mon, which has nothing whatsoever to do with a nasty evil monster, but instead is a term from Classical Mythology meaning an attendant spirit. In the world of "The Golden Compass," one's animal spirit can change forms until one passes through puberty when the animal settles into a single appearance. So children's dæmons for example, can fluctuate between cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, and so on. But adults have an eagle, or a monkey, or a jaguar, for example, as a dæmon.
Now, every story has to have a conflict and the conflict plaguing the world of "The Golden Compass" is eerily reminiscent of one we have in our universe, here on our very own earth. In this alternate world, there is a powerful, repressive religion called The Magisterium which attempts to control every aspect of people's lives. This religion has been in power for many, many years and has amassed great wealth and influence. And that wealth and influence come directly from keeping people ignorant about the reality of the world around them. Scientists have discovered a sub-atomic particle they call "dust" which flows from a rift in space into all people's dæmons, and then directly into each human being. They are eager to discover the nature of this energy, the reason for the existence of this particle, and where it comes from. But of course The Magisterium is threatened by such thoughts and ideas which could serve to undermine the made-up stories they use to control the population. If The Magisterium were to be seen for what it truly is, a fascistic organization that opposes any kind of advancement or progress for human beings by spreading made-up nonsense, then they would certainly be destroyed. So how better to stop this threat than to find a way to separate children from their dæmons, effectively taking a human's very soul from them, rendering them a sort of half-lobotomized sheep, ready to do anything The Magisterium says without a fight, without a thought... a true flock. That is the goal of The Magisterium which sees knowledge and self-awareness as evils to be eradicated. If The Church can create followers who shun knowledge and self-awareness, then The Church has the perfect, pliable congregation who will obey absolutely.
And this is where the story starts: enter a plucky little girl named Lyra (played by a perfectly capable and thoroughly believable Dakota Blue Richards), whose uncle (Daniel Craig) is one of the aforementioned scientists in search of the truth about the mysterious "dust." She becomes entangled with The Magisterium and a cold, cruel emissary of The Church, one Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). In a world of witches, and a race of sentient, talking Ice Bears, she embarks on a mission to rescue the children The Magisterium is experimenting on.
What could go wrong with a film series like this? Weeeeeell, enter our very own version of The Magisterium. At the time of the film's release by New Line Cinema, a group calling itself The Catholic League launched a two-month long protest campaign, claiming that author Philip Pullman was "trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief" with his original written trilogy which The League feared promoted "atheism for kids." New Line Cinema had made preparations for the second installment of the trilogy, called "The Subtle Knife" but said the sequel was dependent on performance of "The Golden Compass" at the box office. Domestic receipts for the opening weekend only (not for the run) were supposedly disappointing but total sales included profits outside the United States which, according to Wiki, were described as "stellar" by Variety and as "astonishing" by New Line itself. But despite the forward momentum and huge profits, the rest of the series was scrapped. Star Sam Elliott has been quite vocal about the reason for this, blaming the censorship of the Catholic Church.
Ultimately, it is sickly ironic that a film about a dangerous, powerful, repressive church which fears knowledge and free thought was censored by a dangerous, powerful, repressive church which fears knowledge and free thought. If it weren't true, it would be funny. But it is true... The reason the church fears such ideas being made available to children is that, if not indoctrinated at an early age, the church knows it will lose them as followers. Keeping children in the dark, sometimes literally, is their version of cutting the connection between a child and his or her dæmon, which is the soul... and source of genuine and authentic "self." The modus operandi of both churches is "Don't Think, Don't Wonder, Don't Ask." Knowledge is portrayed as a vice, an evil. That's why we have actual grown adults in the United States at this moment who think that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that we were all made by a supernatural being from dirt and a rib. And in fact, of the boycott of the film, author Pullman said, "Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers? Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world."
The League can't see that their boycott and subsequent destruction of the film series only served to prove the film and its portrayal of the church correct.
And finally, I would of course be remiss if I did not mention the theme song which plays over the closing credits... the song "Lyra" was recorded by my idol, the legendary Kate Bush.
Recommend? Yes. It has some small flaws, like the set-up at the beginning (which is quite difficult to explain even in print), but that is a minor quibble. It is actually a smart, beautiful film with a lot to say. See it.