Like the doctor in a family, as a film critic, I am constantly approached by my relatives to get an early read on upcoming releases. My conservative uncle picked my brain about Lions for Lambs before it hit the cinemas, and similarly, my mother had to grill me about The Golden Compass.

I know that secretly New Line Cinema has to be just downright giddy about the controversy surrounding this film. After all, this kind of buzz only helps a film at the box office. Look what it did for movies like The Da Vinci Code and The Passion of the Christ.

Sadly though, like many of these controversial films, the controversy has less to do with the movie and more about a particular group getting its collective panties in a bunch (namely the Catholic League calling for a boycott while the U.S. Conference of Bishops giving the film a thumbs up). Ultimately, The Golden Compass is a fun film that is appropriate for most of the family (save for a couple scenes of fantasy violence).

Based on Phillip Pullman’s best-selling trilogy, The Golden Compass takes place in a parallel universe where people are paired with “daemons,” which are corporeal manifestation of their souls. The daemons and humans are linked by a magical dust that also links the different parallel universes.

One scholar named Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) wants to study this dust, but the overbearing regime of the Magisterium is against this research. The Magisterium, which wants to control the thoughts and actions of all people, is also searching for the last Golden Compass, which can tell the truth in the hands of the right user. The young girl Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) discovers she has the power to read the compass, and she uses it to track down her friends who have been kidnapped to the far north.

As you can tell, there’s a lot of plot – and even more background – crammed into this movie. It’s understandably convoluted at times and a bit hard to follow. But having not read the original books, I can only assume the filmmakers did their best to get this world jump-started in this trilogy.

The Golden Compass is a brilliant looking film, and the acting is pretty solid. There were only a few moments that seemed to be too silly for the rather heavy story (most of them involving Sam Elliot), but those were forgivable from where I was sitting.

I suppose when you think about it enough, you can see the Catholic allegories in this film. Clearly the Magisterium represents the Catholic church, steeped in antiquated dogmatic beliefs. But with all the talk of God getting killed, I really expected more fire in the film.

Outside of overt politics and the Iraq war, Hollywood seems to understand that the American public just doesn’t liked to be preached at. So, when it comes to matters of religion, they often dilute a story, no matter whether the original source material is religious or atheistic. Disney downplayed the overt Christian overtones in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Similarly, they’ve downplayed the alleged atheistic and anti-Catholic scenes in The Golden Compass.

I chose to approach this film the way an average moviegoer should – as a slice of the big-budget entertainment pie. I wasn’t looking for higher meaning, and I certainly didn’t want to attend a sermon either for or against God.

I ended up bringing my six-year-old son to this film, and he absolutely went bonkers over it. He was fully wrapped up in the characters and excited about the movie. He identified with Lyra and found sympathy in the story when her friends were in peril.

If you can get past the controversy and transcend the discussions of politics and religion, you should have fun watching The Golden Compass. Rather than saying, “I wonder if the Magisterium is supposed to represent the modern Catholic church?,” sit on the edge of your seat and say “Wow! Two polar bears beating the shale out of each other. Cool!” I guarantee you’ll come out of the film a happier person.

Grade: B+

The Upside: Finally, a cool fantasy film that’s better than crap like Eragon.

The Downside: Another young actress named Dakota.

On the Side: This film has broken the first-day U.K. box office record for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The Golden Compass Poster Release Date: December 7, 2007
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence.
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ian McKellen, Eva Green
Director: Chris Weitz
Screenplay: Chris Weitz (screenplay), Philip Pullman (novel)
Studio: New Line Cinema
Official Website: Click Here

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