In this super-compressed narrative which avoids any hint of subtly, we are informed straightaway of all the exciting things about Philip Pullman’s new world that, in the books, we were forced to learn as we went. There are parallel worlds, and in one particular world, much like ours but without a Hindenburg disaster, humans’ souls are external, animal-shaped daemons. The ruling power of this world, the Magisterium, is concerned about the fact that when children grow up and become dirty and wicked, their daemons “settle” into a particular form; and a mysterious invisible particle called Dust collects around them. At the center of a growing storm is Lyra, an orphan who, as played by Dakota Blue Richards, is the brightest spot in this film. She is worth the whole thing; she’s adorable and yet maintains the requisite hardness the inveterate survivor and liar needs. She’s more likable than in the book, but she has to be, to hold the scattered film together.
Lyra’s adventures are certainly interesting, but they seem haphazard, even for a children’s fantasy epic. Plot points turn up at convenient times, like an engine. We don’t ask how the train got here; we just get on and off at the right stops. And just in case we notice some lack of cohesion to the script, the score is one of the most blatantly manipulative pieces of film music I’ve ever heard. It sounds as if it’s been cobbled together from a hundred previous films via a blueprint for just what heightened emotion we’re supposed to feel when; and most offensively, the Tartar armies are always accompanied by a throat-singing sound, I suppose to heighten their Otherness. And like most primarily-CG films, there are numerous unnecessary “helicopter” shots and expansive camera sweeps. Because they can. The CG itself is fairly good, especially with the main characters, but the background animals couldn’t help but remind me of dogs from the Sims2 computer game in the way they moved.
Incidentally, I had become concerned upon hearing reviews that the film attempted to “secularize” the Magisterium, but I saw little evidence of this on screen. It is clearly a Christian organization; their headquarters, in one town, is clearly a Greek Orthodox Church (which gets smashed to bits). There is no overt naming of the Magisterium as a religious organization, but there is no other explanation for things like the repeated use of the word “heresy.” Controversy about what it’s saying about religion may reign as far as I’m concerned; what I don’t think can be debated is whether it is saying something.
There is definitely an audience who will thrill to the concepts introduced here, which are enthralling. But what is good in the movie is present in the book. That doesn’t make enjoying the movie a bad thing, and there is enough of interest here to make it not a complete waste of time. But regarded as a movie rather than a spectacle, it fails. And there are bigger spectacles out there; albeit none with souls in the form of talking ferrets.