Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is disobedient, obstinate, crafty, and skeptical. In other words, she challenges authority, she is is a creative thinker, and she is in the grand tradition of the heroes of classic adventure stories. And this is a grand adventure indeed, sweeping, imaginative, epic, thrilling.
Lyra lives in an alternate world that looks like 19th century Oxford. She is an orphan essentially being raised through the benign neglect of a group of academics, with occasional visits from her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), an explorer-scientist. She runs wild much of the time, playing with the servant’s children rather than sitting in classrooms. In her world, “souls walk beside our bodies” in the form of “daemons,” animal spirits that are invisibly connected to their humans. The daemons of children shift from one species to another as the circumstances inspire — or require. But daemons assume one form at puberty and retain it.
Lord Asriel arrives with news of “dust,” a mystical force he has been studying at the top of the world. There are mysterious rumors of children being snatched up and taken away. An imposing and mysterious woman named Mrs. Coulter invites Lyra to stay with her. And one of the scholars gives Lyra an important gift called an althiometer, a kind of compass with mysterious symbols that when read correctly — or rather, when read by the person who knows how to use it — tells the truth. All of these developments come together as Lyra goes on a journey in search of her captured friend, a journey that requires the assistance of a cowboy (gravel-voiced Sam Elliott), a witch (Eva Green), and an armored bear (voice of Ian McKellan).
Richards has a wonderful presence as Lyra, holding the center of the film as the special effects and action scenes swirl around her. The design of the film is gorgeous, the action is thrilling, and the issues it raises about identity, free will, loyalty, integrity, and the meaning of the soul are compellingly presented. Kidman is cooly evil as Mrs. Coulter. When she smacks her own daemon, an evil-looking golden monkey, it is genuinely shocking.
The movie necessarily eliminates some of the book’s complexity, zipping through a lot of detail in an introductory voice-over and concluding before the book’s ending. But its visual richness is rewarding and Lyra’s spirit is inspiring.
The movie has sparked controversy because some groups allege that it is anti-religion in general or anti-Catholicism in particular. Information to help parents evaluate those claims is below. My own opinion is that the film is not anti-religion or anti-Catholic and can be interpreted as deeply spiritual in a manner that underscores the importance of religious belief.
Parents should know that this film includes children and adults in peril, shooting, arrows, fighting, explosions, battle scenes, a badly injured child (not graphic), and some disturbing themes. A character abuses alcohol. NOTE: Some religious groups have raised concerns that the movie is anti-religion in general and anti-Catholicism in particular. The Catholic League, who are not theologians or clergy, called for a boycott of the film, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a different view. While they noted an “anti-clerical subtext, standard genre occult elements, character born out of wedlock, a whiskey-guzzling bear,” it concludes that “taken purely on its own cinematic terms, (it) can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.” (NOTE: This review was later rescinded.)
Some critics have said that the movie has toned down its message but that it will lead young people to the books, which are more explicitly anti-religion. Here at Beliefnet, Idol Chatter blogger Donna Freitas says that the books are a “stunning retelling of salvation.” She is co-author of Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials. Her exclusive interview with Pullman is fascinating, and should be viewed by anyone who has concerns about the movie’s appropriateness. Jeffrey Overstreet, who reviews movies for Christianity Today Movies, wrote, “He’s not really undermining Christian belief as he thinks he is; he is undermining the abuse of authority, something altogether contrary to the gospel…If Pullman’s work shakes up people’s faith, then their faith was poorly developed to begin with.” For more reactions, see this.
Families who see this film should talk about the idea of daemons as “souls outside the body.” Why do children’s daemons shift from one species to another, while adults’ do not? What would your daemon look like? What do you think the Magesterium represents?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the Harry Potter series, Labyrinth, and The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And they will enjoy the books: His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass). They might also like to read some theories about the books, including Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials, by Beliefnet’s Donna Frietas, Shedding Light on His Dark Materials: Exploring Hidden Spiritual Themes in Philip Pullman’s Popular Series, and The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.