This is really less a review of Chris Weitz' adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass than a collection of semi-random and mostly-unconnected thoughts about the movie, just to get that out of the way at the outset. If you want actual reviews, try here (my more traditional review of the books, however, is here).
First, I thought it was rather too short. Too many interesting portions of the book were totally absent from the film, which made the just-under-two-hours go by at a breakneck pace, with no moments to pause and enjoy the alternate universes or special effects. It felt too rushed. I wanted more richness, more depth, and more plot.
Weitz has taken some flack for toning down the 'anti-religious' aspect of Pullman's work (which as I've said seems to me to be not really anti-religious, just anti-dogmatic), but I agree with The Little Professor on this: she points out that the Magisterium portrayed in the film bears a much more striking resemblance to the Catholic hierarchy than its counterpart in the book, and that the movie has a rather sharp Protestant feel. She writes "If anything, Lyra's position as a savior figure, foretold in the witches' prophecies, implies the existence of an alternative religious structure--not the opposition of religion to no religion at all. And the film condemns the Magisterium's attempt to legislate behavior from above on the same grounds as Protestants have condemned the Roman Catholic Church since the Reformation: such external control promotes both legalism (that is, it emphasizes obedience to a law imposed from without, instead of spiritual rebirth from within) and denies the importance of the conscience. ... All of this overlaps with a secular or skeptical critique of religion, of course, but is hardly confined to it." It will be interesting to see how the next two films tackle this question.
The special effects were well done and excellently employed; Weitz pulled off the difficult task of making the daemons, spy-flies, witches and ice bears believable, while also bringing Pullman's parallel universes into being (though things moved too fast to get a good look). And the casting was superb. Dakota Blue Richards was simply perfect as the precocious and ornery Lyra, and Nicole Kidman worked as the ice queen Mrs. Coulter. Sam Elliott's Lee Scoresby and Tom Courtenay's Farder Coram were right on the money, and cameos by Christopher Lee, Derek Jacobi and other British staples were an added bonus. Kathy Bates should have had more lines as Scoresby's jackrabbit daemon Hester, and Ian McKellen's voice as Iorek probably didn't need whatever mechanical augmentation was applied to it to make it even more gravelly, but those are just quibbles.
A good movie, but not a great one. Bring on "The Subtle Knife."