"The Golden Compass" was a "big event movie" by all standards. It had massive media push, a first-rate cast, cutting-edge special effects, and an incredible display at the San Diego Comic Con. By all appearances, it seemed like it would be reaching for the same audience as "The Chronicles of Narnia." It presented a world of early-20th century technology and culture with fantastic creatures and young children on an amazing journey.
But the buzz about the movie was that it was based on a book that was an anti-religious answer to "Narnia." Now I will admit right here that I do not read as many of these epic fantasy novels as some people do. Lately all my reading has by necessity had to be about Captain Marvel, comic book history, and American social history (to see why, go to my website http://www.captainmarvelculture.com). My big reading years for fantasy and sci-fi were in High School, when I worked my way through the Foundation, 2001, and Dune series. I started "The Fellowshiop of the Ring" in 7th grade but found it hard to get into somewhere around the Inn of the Prancing Pony. I read a lot of medieval and Arthurian literature after high schoool due to my involvement in the Society for Creative Anachronism and some courses in college. So I have not read Narnia, Compass, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or most other famous and popular book series that everyone else seems to have these days.
"The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" was read to mne in 3rd grade, though, and I do go to most fantasy movies when they come out. I read much of the criticism, and engage in discussions with fans and active readers of these series. I am aware that Narnia was a Christian parable, that Aslan represented Jesus Christ etc.
I am not a Christian, and am critical of certain effects that religious faith has on society. I have seen dogma get in the way of everything from simply having a good time to scientific inquiry to life-saving medicine. I have also seen faith unite people and inspire them to suffer through adversity and do deesds of great good. I also recognize that the story of Jesus fulfills many of the hallmarks of a Campbellian universal hero. The return from death, near death, or seeming death of a great and noble warrior/leader/king/hero is always a crowd-pleaser. Therefore, I can enjoy Narnia as such a magical fantasy adventure.
If the Golden Compass was a story that critiques religion and promotes science, that point was kind of lost in the translation to the silver screen. The establishment of certain story elements, such as everyone having an animal that represented their soul, talking polar bears, flying sorceresses, the seemingly magical "dust" that connected universes, and the McGuffin of the title, the Golden Compass itself, all set up a fantasy world where science as we know it did not apply. Thereofre when the religious establishment in the world of the film tried to stifle scientific exploration of "dust," it seemed as much like a coflict of the state religion against the true faith as much as anything else.
The rest of the movie fulfilled all the requirements of a Campbellian hero journey, and a magical child's adventure, that any science vs. religion debate was just lost.
That having been said, the writing felt a little stilted and unrealistic. I mean would you really trust someone who came along and gave you all that exposition that Sam Elliot gave when he meet the girl? The repeated special effect of the use of the Compass go tiresome. The Polar Bear fight was awesome, though.