The Golden Compass is based off the book of the same name. It follows Lyra Belacqua as she seeks the truth behind the Magesterium and the reason they’ve been kidnapping children.
There’s a lot of world-building going on in this movie. Lyra lives in a world parallel to ours, where people’s souls live outside their bodies in the form of daemons, which take the shapes of animals—animals that can change shape while a person is still a child. There’s the Magisterium, a church who controls most of the world, but not Jordan College—though the college and its free-thinking traditions feel under threat. There’s Dust, about which we sadly get to know little, only that it’s connected to the soul and adulthood. There are the witches, who can fly and whose daemons can travel further from them than humans’s can. And of course, there’s the Golden Compass itself, a machine that can divine the truth of anything and which is a great threat to the Magisterium—Lyra comes into possession of the last one. And there’s so much more.
The plot is fast-paced but a little dense. Besides the mysteries of Dust, there’s Lord Areal, Lyra’s uncle, who’s trying to find passage to another world. There’s the charming but sinister Mrs. Coulter, who’s in league with the Magisterium, in charge of the Gobblers—the child-stealers—as they experiment on children, trying to “save” them but cutting away their daemons. There’s the armored bear Iorek Byrnison, who comes under debt to Lyra when she uses the Golden Compass to divine where his armor has been hidden, and who is the exiled heir to the throne of the armored bears. There’s also the witches’s prophecy about which we hear only a little, only that it has to do with Lyra and the Golden Compass. There’s just a lot going on in this movie.
The special effects in The Golden Compass, of which there are many, are second to none. From the flying machines to the Ice Bears, everything feels real. And the battles are spectacular, especially the one with the armored bears—they are given a real sense of weight and presence. The landscapes, especially those of frozen Svalbard , are also stunning.
I enjoyed the movie for its beauty and its spectacle, and the great acting, but if I hadn’t read the book first it might have been a little hard to follow, if only because the book of course has more detail. It might’ve been interesting to see where they’d take the story as diverging from the books, but they never made a sequel, so there are a few loose ends that never get resolved. I’m not sure if I recommend this movie or not.