Despite good acting and wonderful special effects, I found "The Golden Compass" ultimately lifeless. Much of the movie takes place in the polar north, and the iciness of the setting is a perfect metaphor for the chilly, sterile spirit at the heart of the story. Anyone expecting a playful children's fantasy would do well to look elsewhere.
The movie takes place in a parallel world dominated by a sinister, quasi-religious authority known as the Magisterium which abducts young children and literally kills their souls. "Magisterium" refers to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church -- hardly a literary coincidence. The aggressively anti-religious, anti-Christian undercurrent of the movie is unmistakable and at times undisguised. Standing in contrast to the Catholic belief in heaven, for example, is author Philip Pullman's afterlife that consists of bodies breaking into particles and being recycled into the material world.
Strangest of all -- and in striking contrast to the Narnia stories -- is the absence of joy or any real laughter. The talented child actress who plays the film's leading role is hobbled by a character that is uniformly unpleasant, rebellious, belligerent and humorless.