Question authority: That’s the stated message of The Golden Compass and, by the way, the point of this piece.

In the case of the movie, the authority is the Magisterium, the totalitarian regime that Lyra, our spunky young heroine, energetically opposes. In the case of this article, you might say it’s the Critiserium – the critics who have weighed in on this film.

By now you may have heard that The Golden Compass, which opened Friday, is a high-flung fantasy with armored polar bears, a mysterious substance called “dust,” visible human souls that look like animals and a magical compass (or “alethiometer”) that tells Lyra the truth. You may also know that some real-life religious leaders have condemned the film because the young-adult novel upon which it is based is part of a trilogy, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, that is said to promote atheism.

Most of the film critics have noted the controversy without dwelling on it; after all, their job is to assess the movie itself. And in some ways, their collective assessment isn’t far wrong.

In USA Today, Claudia Puig calls the film “surprisingly bland,” while Variety’s Todd McCarthy labels it “oddly uninviting” and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly slams it for being “curiously sodden.” What I want to know is: Why do they all sound surprised that a bloated, big-budget release could suck? Stephanie Zacharek of, however, pulls no punches; to her, the film is “utter soulless crap.” And in fact, it doesn’t even rise to the level of another recent film fantasy, the amusingly ironical Enchanted.

It gives me no joy to report that one of the very few members of the Critiserium to praise The Golden Compass is Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. Though battling serious illness, Ebert charged into print to declare the film “splendid entertainment.”

Most of the major reviewers acknowledge Dakota Blue Richards’ performance as Lyra without stressing how much her preternatural intensity does to keep at least part of the film alive. (Ebert, however, does.) They’d rather talk about the special effects – which, guys, ain’t all that special by today’s standards – and supporting actors Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Sam Elliott, among others. For Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, Kidman is “the film’s most spectacular special effect.” Well, isn’t that special?

Written and directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy), The Golden Compass was the nation’s top-grossing movie last weekend, taking in $26 million at the box office – a poor showing, actually, for a film that cost $180 million.

What no one in the Critiserium seems to have noticed is that the movie doesn’t do especially well when it comes to making the case for questioning authority, although, admittedly, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal comes close when he says that it “seethes with elusive profundities and makes remarkably little sense.”

What the film is really saying is that if transparently sinister people with wicked eyes and unctuous voices tell you that they want to control you, you ought to fight back. That’s not questioning authority, that’s simple self-preservation.

A better film would have led viewers (including many young ones) to question the authority of gentle-eyed, soft-voiced souls who think they believe in freedom but actually don’t. I’m not going to name any names, but your alethiometer will know who they are.

More by J.B. Mitchell


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