Computer-generated image (CGI) technology has improved exponentially in say, the seven  years since “Gladiator” built a pretty convincing virtual Flavian Amphitheater: all you have to do to see the progress is compare Gollum to Jar-Jar Binks. Peter Jackson's “The Lord of the Rings” was probably the watershed; he proved to the film world (and to some reserved extent the literary world) that you could put any image on the screen and make an audience believe it. It might not be everybody's personal image, but it stood a chance of becoming that. And, from the fabulously successful Harry Potter series to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” we can't seem to get enough.
    Nowadays the movie industry is besotted with the technology, leaping ahead to provide new thrills, from CGI to motion capture to the new IMAX 3-D; when I was 12 I thought Cinerama was pretty cool too. In its haste to outdo itself, Hollywood is rampaging through library shelves, looking for properties with astounding visual elements that moviegoers will just have to see, whether they know anything about the book or not.
    For this Christmas season, New Line Cinema (which produced “The Lord of the Rings”) has made a curious decision: they have chosen to release a film of a children's/young adult fantasy book by an author who has nowhere near the name recognition of Tolkien or Lewis or Rowling. That would be “The Golden Compass,” the first book of a trilogy by English author Philip Pullman.
    On the surface it's a great choice. Pullman's world, in a parallel universe similar to ours, is richly visual, containing armies of flying witches and polar bears that talk, and, most intriguingly, the concept of the daemon, an animal that accompanies each human, something between a pet, a guardian angel, and an external soul.
    As we join the story Lord Asriel, an iconoclastic scientist, is studying a recently-discovered phenomenon: “There are many universes and many earths; so many worlds, and connecting them all is Dust.” Dust appears to be an elementary particle that migrates from world to world; since it's new and unknown, the Magisterium, a church-like governing body, has decided that it is evil.
    Our heroine is a 12-year-old girl named Lyra who is bright, intuitive, loyal, and unstoppable; as played by newcomer Dakota Blue Fanning, we take to her immediately. Aided by an alethiometer, a golden compass that points to the truth, she sets out in a roundabout way to unmask the Gobblers, a mysterious lot that kidnap poor kids, and on the way befriends a witch, a polar bear, and a slow-talkin' feller from Texas, meanwhile having a run-in with Nicole Kidman, who looks just as glamorous as you think True Evil surely must.
    This is strange enough to make you think, We're not in Narnia anymore, Reepicheep, and you'd be right. Pullman's trilogy, known collectively as “His Dark Materials” (that's a quote from Milton's “Paradise Lost”) is a surprising and sometimes bizarre reworking of the theme of the Fall of Man. All fantasy has its basis in myth and legend, and a large amount of it (including the transparent Narnia books) takes off from the general idea of Christianity. Pullman isn't the first fantasy author, but because of the movie he's now probably the best known, along with Dan Brown, to turn turn the story on its head and excoriate organized religion for getting the message wrong, and for causing two millenia's worth of persecution, intolerance, death and misery.
    (And wherever you happen to stand in the current controversy, I would like to point out that the organizations that are seeking to keep people from seeing the movie are shooting themselves in the foot. When you try to silence your opponent rather than debate with him, you automatically prove that yours is the weaker argument. Not to mention making everyone want to see the movie.)
    But what does this mean for moviegoers? Visually, it means a real treat. Production designer Dennis Gassner has provided us with a London that looks like Oz, with a St. Paul's Cathedral surmounted by skyscraping towers, and taxis powered by gyroscope. And his Oxford looks just like the real one, except the buildings keep shifting around. All of his earthly locations, be they Gothic in Oxford or Palladian in London, are overlayed with Art Nouveau details whose swirling curves throw the eye just a bit off. And when Lyra and her friends head north, the scenes filmed in Norway will have you pining for the fjords, if you like majestic and bleak. The CG critters are equally impressive. The daemons are believable talking animals (in a backhanded compliment to Narnia) and the ice bears are REALLY impressive.
    (Do you know that each hair on a polar bear acts as a fiber optic strand that carries sunlight down to the bear's skin? Do you care?)
    Chris Weitz's direction and screenplay is another matter. Fans of the books have denounced him for emasculating the message, and he has in fact turned the Magisterium into garden-variety fascist nasties, though Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee have a bang-up time playing a couple of creepy bishops.
    But it's the short shrift Weitz gives to the book's metaphysics that dilute the story's richness. Plot points that the book leads us too by careful stages are reduced to single sentences that point artlessly to the next event. “You can bet that Coulter woman has hired every Samoyed bandit between here and the Pole to take us down,” says Asriel to his daemon, and BOOM! there they are. “We've got to stop them, Iorek – the alethiometer says they'll hurt Roger!” says Lyra to the bear, so you'll know where they're galloping to.
    Loss of detail in the Harry Potter movies often served to streamline the narrative, but here it compounds a disconnect that many in the audience may feel: ignoring thorny theological problems may be far more confusing than wrestling with them. I talked with friends afterwards who hazarded that anyone who hasn't read the book won't have a prayer, so to speak, of following the movie.