The movie is fine. By no means great, by no means terrible. Often after watching a film adaptation of a book I come away with the sickening sensation that the almighty dollar was the sole driving force behind the work. That is not this film's failing. Nor is the acting. We'll get to the the directing and the screenplay in a second, all done by the same person, Chris Weitz.
Pullman's Golden Compass is a complex and (somewhat) controversial tale filled with memorable characters, the foremost of whom is Lyra Belacqua. Lyra inhabits a parallel universe in which people's souls, called daemons, live outside the body in the shape of an animal. Our hero-child is up against the dark and oppressive powers of the Magisterium (a.k.a. The Church, hence the controversy), which has found a way to cut a child's daemon away. Lyra's quest is to travel north to help her uncle counter these forces.
Lyra is guided by her alethiometer, a truth reader. For me the great joy of the novel is watching Lyra grow as she gradually learns to read her golden compass. Weitz treats Pullman's work lovingly, perhaps too much so. He seems determined to guide us by hand through each episode. In the meantime, a world of witches, gyptians and armored bears flies by when it should unfold. The result is a blur of a film in which Lyra's growth is not gradual but virtually instantaneous. This movie does not flow, it races, all the while trying to keep the audience in the know with less than stellar dialogue. The ultimate sin: an expository prologue that explains much of the movie away before we see a single scene. Why, why, why!?
The special effects are just fine. The battles are exciting. The acting at times is wonderful (feast your eyes on Eva Green). It's Weitz' determination to cram the tale down our throats in two hours that makes this a slightly above average bit of entertainment. Lord of the Rings proved that we can handle three hour movies. A novel as rich and fascinating as the Golden Compass deserved such a canvas. Alas.
Nate's McBone Rating: 3.0 McBones (out of a possible 5)