Lyra lives in an alternate universe which is a lot like ours " if you've taken a tubful of bad acid. In Lyra's world, everyone's soul is an animal that lives outside their body and goes around with them like a talking pet. Adults have fixed animal souls, but children's souls are shape shifters. Lyra's soul can be a bird, though usually a ferret, occasionally a mouse and sometimes a bobcat. These animal souls obviously represent character traits. In Lyra's case, they are respectively free-spiritedness, curiosity, fear and ferocity. One of the villains has a snake. Lyra's uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has a leopard. James Bondish and Indiana Jonesish as he is, Lord Asriel would no doubt be the picture's hero if he'd hung around long enough, but he departs early for the sequel. (Maybe, like me, he's hoping there isn't one.)
The plot in The Golden Compass involves Lyra's role in thwarting the ruling hierarchy, the Magisterium, from wiping out free will. This dastardly scheme involves snatching all the world's children off to an igloo up North-Pole-way and surgically removing their soul pets. Afterwards, the children walk around with wide, unfocused eyes and talk like automatons. Meanwhile, Uncle Asriel has discovered some dust up north that suggests a way to transport from one parallel universe to another, though no advantage for doing so is ever detailed. Somehow this connects to what Lyra is up to, but it would make blood drip from my ears if I were to try to explain how.
Weitz has arranged for some classy actors to assume various guises in this brain-numbing story. Derek Jacobi plays a Magisterial Big Cheese who just oozes with self-righteous nastiness. Think of him as whatever religious fundamentalist you're proud to despise. Ian McKellen provides the voice for Iorek Byrnison, a good warrior polar bear who assists Lyra by defeating the head bad polar bear in an ursus-a-ursus combat that would set a caffeine junkie to yawning. Nicole Kidman plays Marisa Coulter, a really, really bad person (an alternate universe version of Ann Coulter) in league with the Magisterium for reasons this film never bothers to reveal. My favorite of the biggish stars in the flick, however, is Sam Elliott who shows up as Lee Scoresby, a sardonic cowboy who must surely have driven his Beach Ballimp in from the alternative universe of a different movie. Elliott is always fun to watch, but I haven't a clue what his character is doing here.
For those astonished by my snarling response to this movie, I will readily concede that fantasy hasn't ever floated the boat of my imagination. I gave up on the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings flicks after one each, and neither of those approached the insufferability of this film. I will commend young Dakota Richards as a performer of promising charisma. And, of course, given my bedrock belief that organized religion is the worst thing humankind ever invented, I applaud the picture's notion that institutions like the Magisterium will readily harm those they purport to serve. But neither Richards' performance nor certain worthy themes make this picture even faintly watchable. Leaving the theater after seeing it, a viewer behind me complained loudly it was the worst movie he'd ever seen. I can't go that far. But it is unquestionably the worst film I've seen this year.