Having never read the source material, but most definitely a serious fan of the fantasy genre, I walked into Chris Weitz's adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass with a small sense of schizophrenia. As much as I enjoy epic adventures, daring escapes, dramatic battles and all that magical stuff, I'm well aware that every studio in Hollywood has tried to copy-cat the success of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings. Between Narnia, Eragon, Stardust, The Seeker, Beowulf, and a few others (with Inkheart and The Spiderwick Chronicles on the way!), it's tough to keep track of which ethereal realm needs the assistance of which plucky youths in order to thwart which decidedly nasty villain.
But it seems a little silly to complain, especially when you consider that the last time the "swords and sorcery" sub-genre had a revolution, it yielded movies like Legend, Labyrinth, Ladyhawke, Dragonslayer and Krull. (Yes, all of which I like.) Our latest entry into the family-friendly epic adventure category is, of course, The Golden Compass, which is based on a rather controversial fantasy novel that has the audacity to (gasp) criticize organized religion. But since pretty much all of the subtext has been drained out of this movie version, we can skip all that nonsense and cut right to the meat of the movie -- which is pretty damn fun, if you ask me.
The setting is a parallel universe in which people look a lot like we do ... only they all have personal "daemons" that hang nearby at all times. Not creepy Clive Barker-style demons, these are more like magical talking animals that share a soul with their respective 'masters' -- and the kids' daemons can morph into different animals at will. Cool! Our heroine is a precocious young tomboy called Lyra, and her adventure begins when she's whisked away from Jordan College by a mysterious lovely known as Mrs. Coulter. (It comes as little surprise to learn that Mrs. Coulter actually isn't that nice a lady, but let's not spoil things for those who haven't read the books.)