The His Dark Materials series has worn a fair share of hats since it was published in 1995. After making the gamut of British best-seller lists and performing well in the United States (a particularly impressive feat considering the Potter phenomenon), author Philip Pullman's fantasy series has been referred to as Lord of the Rings for tots, a highbrow version of Harry Potter, a courageous proponent of free thought, and an act of blasphemy designed to corrupt the souls of children. Unlike the Potter series' fanciful spiritual notions scattered about a stronger message of common-sense goodwill to others, His Dark Materials relies less on invoking the golden rule and more on questioning that which represents absolute authority, whether it be an ill-intentioned adult, organized religion, or God. It's no surprise that the announcement of a film adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first installation in the series, inspired its share of boycotts, blustery mass e-mails, and book burnings. Judging by the film's mediocre performance in theaters, the protestors were successful; however, The Golden Compass, while flawed, is a solid, thoughtful film.
Ironically, one of the film's flaws is the lack of religious symbolism. While Compass contains the least amount of religious undertones in the trilogy, the film has next to none. It's difficult to determine exactly what the forces of good are rebelling against since the Magisterium was reduced from the fantasy world's version of the Catholic Church to a vague group of authoritarians who pop up occasionally to slip poison into wine and speak threateningly to wizened academics. Still, while most moviegoers wouldn't see religion as the antagonist (or be able to figure out what the heck "Dust" is), it's still easy enough to surmise that the battle is to maintain one's free will, and that free will is no less than the soul itself.
Leading the charge in the adventure is Lyra, who is entrusted with a rare truth-measuring device called an alethiometer. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards is perfect in the role; as in the book, she is plain enough to make her tall tales believable, and charismatic enough to befriend armored bears and toughened men. In Lyra's Oxford -- a parallel dimension resembling a scene from Victorian England with updated architecture and fancy zeppelins -- the human soul exists as a spiritually connected yet entirely physical animal referred to as a daemon. The idea of a human without a daemon is a highly disturbing and largely incomprehensible thought among Lyra's world, with the exception of the powerful Magisterium, who find the notion of easily controlled (albeit soulless) human automatons quite desirable indeed. Claiming they are merely preserving innocence, they enlist the ambitious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to kidnap impoverished children and use them to help perfect the process of splitting the daemon from the body. Kidman displays just the right amount of rage threatening to betray her otherwise icily elegant exterior, excluding a moment in which she slaps her daemon (which is not in the book, and who slaps their own soul, anyway?); it's a pleasure to watch her unravel as Lyra slowly but surely destroys what she worked so hard to build. Though the film ends two or fifteen chapters earlier than the book, and despite a speech from Lyra that comes across as very set-up-for-sequel-in-two-minutes-or-less, Compass, on the whole, is a great adventure with two important morals: think for yourself and don't cross an angry polar bear.