En-"Compassed": True North
BIG OLD HONKIN' SPOILERS from here on in, both movie and book, so be warned.
Namely, how to fight back against and destroy a monolithic, overbearing, cynically power-craving, grind-you-down-underfoot-so-hard-you-will-never-stand-on-your-own-two-feet-again Church.
Only, of course, in the movie they don't CALL it "the Church", as Philip Pullman does in his unsettling series (of which "Compass" is the first book; called "Northern Lights" in the UK original).
They call it the Magisterium, which is a wonderful name in and of itself, and all its nasty cogs, big and small, are dressed rather handsomely in Medici-prince-of-the-Church garb (Derek Jacobi chiefest among them, and how nasty he is, every inch a Borgia pope).
(In the book, Pullman tells us that the Church has abolished the papacy completely, the last supreme pontiff having been Pope John Calvin, which really made me laugh.)
So we have two extremely interesting things going on here: the onscreen/onpage knockdown slapfest against the evils of the Church (I'm for it!); and the offscreen newspaper/magazine-page gobbling outrage against Pullman's "atheism" and attack on the Church (I am so there for it!).
For starters, Pullman, who may or may not be an atheist (I've read both), is indeed down on the Church, and good on him. BUT he's down on a misleading, arrogant, lying, power-tripping power structure, and the evils it does, not so much on the dogma side (I get the feeling he doesn't give a rat's).
Except that he breathtakingly casts God, or some Deity not entirely like God, as the unspeakably weary cat's-paw of this insane Church, and, in the last book, "The Amber Spyglass", he has God liberated, or killed, sort of, and his Goebbels equivalent, the so-called angel prince Metatron, cast down like Lucifer, in a bang-up scene straight out of Milton.
So, naturally, the organized-religion jackals have been baying for Pullman's head, or, failing that, a Catholic boycott of the film. Completely missing the point, out of malice or willful ignorance or honest inability to get the point, that Pullman is condemning the blatant and right-out-there-for-all-to-see power trips of organized religion and the way the Church pulls the wool right over the sheep's eyes. No one who follows Christ in any real way would have any difficulty with any of this: wasn't their guy the one who whipped the moneychangers out of the Temple and had no truck with Pharisees? Yes, I believe I'm right about that.
Anyway, the concept's freakin' brilliant. I'm not wildly in love with the books, they're just a bit off from my booklove center for that, but they're exceedingly well done and I shall certainly reread them often, with pleasure.
The movie...well, only one so far, who knows how the other two will shape up? And I really wonder how the filmmakers will be able to skirt round the goings-on in "Spyglass," which are pretty deicentric no matter how you slice it.
But strictly as a movie? Loved it. There are giant talking armored Viking polar bears (the chief of whom is voiced by Sir Ian McKellen! It's like Gandalf meets Beorn!), and every human has an externalized animal soul of the opposite gender called a daemon (oooh, what would mine be? I think a huge, deep-coated, autumn-brindled, silver-ruffed, amber-eyed wolf, like the Aoibhell fetch. Though the snow leopard of the dashing Lord Asriel...Azrael, Angel of Death, maybe??...is gorgeous, and I wouldn't mind one myself), and magic is all over the place, with gyptians (waterborne Rom, sort of) and gorgeous Northern witches like valkyries or beautiful banshees, armed with bows, and all sorts of other cool stuff/people.
Beautifully photographed, well cast, it rips off the usual suspects (Northern stuff, LOTR and Narnia; talking animals, Narnia...on and on). But, like all the best fantasies, it's active syncretism, not just dull cheap thievery.
Pagans should be very happy with this, especially Asatruar and other Northern pathfollowers. There's a lot of stuff for us, and there's also a lot of stuff, however movie-sublimated, for those who like to see organized religion's power structure pillars taken out as if by Samson. Sure, it's all much more detailed and complex in the books, but as we all know by now, can't always get every single thing up on the screen. It may be a little lightened-up but fun for all even so.
I wish the new Beowulf movie and that Sparta one had been done like this. I can't STAND that fake, videogamey, cartoony style with just-recognizable actor features...creeps me out but good. Since you're hiring the expensive acting talent ANYway, why not just use them as they are and not trick them out as caricatures? And then spend the extra money on some nice CGI. I'd have gone to see both of these if they'd been live-action and not glitzy crap.
But I'd recommend "The Golden Compass" pretty unreservedly. Good, good stuff.