I'll start here by noting that this review, while it avoids outright spoilers for either book or movie, has some things in it that will mean more if you've read the book rather than not. Since not reading the book would make you a silly person, go correct that lapse in your cultural education at your earliest convenience. Now, onward...
Chris Weitz's film of Philip Pullman's brilliant fantasy adventure The Golden Compass is a respectable adaptation in a lot of ways, but at the same time exhibits a lot of the problems inherent in trying to compress the plot of a complex novel into a two-hour running time. If I give the book a 5 on a 5 scale (and I do), then the movie is hovering around a 2½-3. Truth be told, Weitz did a better job than I was expecting. He's clearly a huge fan of the book and strives to be as faithful to it as he can within the limitations he has to work under. I respect him for trying to do his best by Pullman and the book's fans.
But what this means cinematically is that we get a movie whose story feels rushed, with Weitz doing everything he can to touch on each major plot point in rapid succession. The script just sails along, at such a pace that very little suspense is actually built. We establish the movie's universe, its heroine, and her quest — and then we're off to the races. Lyra, though extremely well played by a great little newcomer named Dakota Blue Richards (why is Dakota the moniker of choice for preteen actresses?), never really feels like she goes through a character arc in the normal sense of the term. She learns to use the aliethiometer, decoding its arcane symbols with almost supernatural speed, just so the script can get the story going.
Thinking about it, it isn't that the movie is too rapidly paced, so much as that it doesn't really have anything you could call "pacing." Its script just flings you from one scene to the next — boom, boom, boom — without much in the way of the dramatic peaks and valleys stories normally have to draw an audience in and give them a stake in the outcome.
Part of me wonders just how much studio interference Weitz had to endure from New Line. If The Lord of the Rings taught New Line anything, it's that doing epic fantasy that already has a built-in audience faithfully, and putting the project in the hands of a dedicated filmmaker equals a major box office love-happening. On the other hand, with $180 million at stake (each LOTR movie cost right around $100m by comparison), New Line clearly wasn't willing to give Weitz a Peter Jackson level of carte blanche. Three editors are credited, leaving me to wonder just how often the infamous moviemaking mantra "We'll fix it in post" reared its little fuzzy head during dailies. I'm not saying that a three-hour running time would have been for the best, but allowing for, say, 140 minutes would have given the movie a little space to breathe, and bring some moments back from the book that the script either excised or truncated in order to stay focused on Lyra's quest alone.
The cast is quite excellent. As Mrs. Coulter, Nicole Kidman is ideal. I like her as an actress anyway, though for this role I wasn't sure. Physically she's different from the novel, where she's a brunette, for one thing (when I read the book, I was picturing more someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones). But Kidman swans through the part looking about as glamorous as it's possible for a woman to look short of being sculpted out of ivory, and she conveys the character's seductive, fatal attraction to a tee. I also dug Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Craig, after proving himself the second best James Bond of all time (flame shields on), is turning into an actor I'll probably want to see no matter what he's in — wait, scratch that, I still have no desire to see The Invasion. Still, I like him, but of course, the script doesn't give him enough to do.
Sadly, other supporting characters are given short shrift, especially Serafina Pekkala, who's barely in the movie enough to matter. (The script's treatment of the witches is an exemplar of how awkwardly the movie translates ideas from the book. In the movie, we really don't get much of an understanding of who the witches are, why they're involved in this, or anything. They're just there, presumably, because they were in the book.) LOTR veteran Ian McKellan lends his voice to Iorek Byrnison, the disgraced bear prince who becomes Lyra's guardian. And though the movie succeeds in building their relationship (it's really the only relationship in the movie with any substance), the script doesn't give Iorek the sense of tragic pathos he has in the novel. Another LOTR alum, Christopher Lee, is prominently billed (how many octogenarian actors are getting as much work as he is?), but he has exactly one line and about ten seconds of screen time. Sam Elliott made for a very good Lee Scorsby, though I was picturing Billy Bob Thornton when I read the book. Elliott is better suited, I think.
As for the movie's whitewashing of the books' theological themes, well, this was interesting. The Magisterium is played less as a church than as a generic totalitarian governing body. But Weitz manages to keep in enough material about freethought (represented by Asriel and his scientific pursuits) versus dogma that I think fans of the book won't feel like the movie betrays the book's themes too drastically. How exactly any proposed movies of books two and three, though, will manage to slip around the whole "kill God" thing is a mystery to me. Weitz has said that he was willing to compromise certain things about this movie to fit them into more of an acceptable Hollywood blockbuster framework, so that its hoped-for box office success would mean he could take more chances with the sequels. I hope that wish comes true, because I predict that audience word of mouth on this movie will hover around "oh, it was okay, I guess," and TGC won't be looking at LOTR-level returns.
Among fans of the book, the biggest letdown is the movie's decision to end a little early, so that the movie can have a happy ending rather than the somewhat tragic one the book has. I think this is a choice that will backfire, not just because it's a mistake to think audiences only want all happy endings all the time, but because the happy ending we get here is so...well...bland. To have ended the movie the way the book ends (and I know I'm assuming you've read the book here) would have given the movie the one thing it utterly lacks: an edge, a willingness to take risks, to challenge its audience both intellectually and emotionally. You know, the very qualities the book is popular for. As it stands, the movie, while it stays true to the book's words as best it can, lacks its mind and its heart. And it lacks its truth. If only Weitz had had his own aliethiometer.
So yeah, I guess it's 2½. I don't want it to be an Eragon-level megabomb, because it's a worthier effort than that. I'd like it to at least make its money back, so that perhaps Weitz gets to make The Subtle Knife after all and take the risks he says he wants to take. So I'll say TGC is worth a matinee. Fantasy cinema that at least tries ought to get our support, if only so we get a great one now and again.