The film takes place in an alternate retrofuturistic Earth which is ruled by a religious organization called the Magisterium. In this dimension, the human soul does not dwell in the body, but in an animal companion called a Daemon. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan raised at Jordan College in Oxford with her Daemon named Pantalaimon or “Pan” for short. During Lyra’s childhood it can change into various animals—everything from a moth to an eagle, a wildcat or a mouse, but later it will fix as a red-gold Pine Marten. He is voiced by Freddie Highmore.
Kyra’s uncle is Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) who has been away searching for Dust, a cosmic particle that the Magisterium pretends does not exist. Someone tries to kill Asriel with poisoned wine, but Lyra saves him. He announces that Dust does in fact exist at the North Pole and connects with infinite worlds. Even though his discovery could be a threat to the Magisterium’s control, he is given another expedition.
A wealthy friend of the College named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) whose Daemon is a vicious gold monkey, invites Lyra to London. The Master of the College secretly gives Lyra her uncle’s Alethiometer, a kind of golden compass that reveals the truth. She has a knack for reading it. Kidnappers called Gobblers are abroad in the world, abducting children, among them Lyra’s friend Roger Parslow (Ben Walker) and Billy Costa (Charlie Rowe), a Gyptian child. Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is the powerful head of the General Oblation Board, and she also controls the Gobblers. Lyra and Pan escape when Mrs. Coulter’s daemon tries to steal the Alethiometer.
Lyra is saved from Gobblers by Ma Costa (Clare Higgins), Billy’s mother, and taken to the Gyptian King John Faa (Jim Carter), who is sailing north to search for the missing children. A Gyptian elder named Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay) recognizes the Alethiometer. In league with the Magisterium, Mrs. Coulter sends mechanical spy-flies to get Lyra, but Farder Cioram catches one. In the far north, Asriel reaches Svalbard, the Kingdom of the Ice-Bears, but is captured by Samoyed tribesmen hired by Mrs. Coulter.
The witch-queen Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) tells Lyra that the missing children are at Bolvanger, and Lyra befriends a Texan aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (the wonderful Sam Elliott), whose Daemon is a jackrabbit named Hester (voice of Kathy Bates). He suggests Lyra hire him and an armoured bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen) that he has come to rescue. He was the Prince of the Bears but was defeated and exiled and his armour was stolen. Lyra uses the Alethiometer to find his armour and he joins their trek northward.
Lyra rides Iorek and the Alethiometer leads them to find Billy, whom the Gobblers have separated from his Daemon. Without his soul, he is lost. The Gyptians are attacked by Samoyeds and they capture Lyra. Iorek and Lee chase after her in Lee’s airship. Lyra is taken to the Bear King Ragnar Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane) and tricks him into fighting Iorek, who kills him, regaining the throne.
Iorek carries Lyra to Bolvangar, but she is forced to cross a narrow ice bridge which collapses behind her. At the experimental station in the mountains, she reunites with Roger and overhears Mrs. Coulter say that Asriel will be arrested for heresy. Lyra and Pan are seized and thrown into the intercision chamber but rescued by Mrs. Coulter. She explains that the Magisterium believes intercision can protect children from Dust and admits that she is Lyra’s mother. Lyra realizes that Asriel is her father.
Mrs. Coulter asks for the Alethiometer but Lyra tricks her into opening a can with a spy-fly inside, which tranquilizes her. Lyra destroys the intercision machine and leads the children out of bondage. They are confronted by Tartar mercenaries who are defeated by Iorek, Scoresby, the Gyptians, and flying witches led by Serafina. Now that the children are safe, Lyra, Iorek, Scoresby, and Serafina fly north and find Asriel. Serafina prophecies a coming war, Lyra is determined to fight the Magisterium, who want to control all the universes.
The film was directed by Chris Weitz from a screenplay by him, based on the 1995 fantasy novel by Philip Pullman, the first of the His Dark Materials Trilogy. When it was released it was criticized and condemned by religious groups. The second and third novels were never filmed, more’s the pity. I have the novels and I loved this film, which is unlike any other fantasy film I have seen, and stars many of my favorite actors. It did win Best Visual Effects at the Oscars and the British Academy Film Awards. The Magisterium, for good reason, was thought to be a parody of the Catholic Church, but it was attacked by pretty much every Christian group in the world. Other critics, of course, criticized it for watering down the Christian references. In 2019, a TV adaptation of the trilogy was presented on British TV by Bad Wolf and it was highly praised.
Because of this, George R.R. Martin insisted that Game of Thrones be a TV series and not a movie. Director Chris Weitz said that New Line Cinema turned making this movie into a terrible experience because of their constant interference. Christopher Lee is in the film, speaking one line. The movie beat out Transformers for the Best Visual Effects Oscar, to everyone’s surprise. The music was by Alexander Desplat. The great name of Serafina Pekkala came from a Finnish phone book. Dakota Blue Richards was in every scene but two, her first film. Lee Scoresby is named after a character in Moby Dick. It’s too bad the second and third films were not made. I blame the intercision of the Magisterium in our world, frankly.
How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways. I love Dakota Blue Richardson and the fierce, brave, reckless character of Lyra Belacqua and her relationship with Pan. Every bit of practical advice he gives her can be seen to come from her soul, from the cautious still small voice inside. In fact, I love the whole idea of the soul residing in an animal familiar. In each case, the animal is appropriate and the relationship is beautiful, even when evil. I love particularly the idea that the Daemon changes constantly during childhood and becomes fixed with maturity. I love Sam Elliot—I could listen to his voice all day—and Kathy Bates as his acerbic jackrabbit soul. I love the armored bears and Mrs. Coulter’s evil Daemon, and the fact that all the villains have Daemons that are serpents or lizards or other creepy-crawlies, and I love the whole fantastic world, so like our own but subtly different and yet seldom falling back on fantasy clichés.