Just as the church-like Magisterium and the glacially glamorous Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) are rumoured to be severing pre-pubescent children from their animal daemons (an external ‘familiar’ representing their inner soul), so this clinical dissection of Pullman’s vividly imagined parallel world cuts away the warm flesh and leaves only the bare bones.
The skeleton of the plot remains, albeit in a compacted, confusing form.
While zeppelins float above an alternate Oxford’s dreaming spires, wilful 12-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) swears to rescue her kitchen-boy friend Roger from his child-cutter abductors. Lyra’s epic quest takes her to the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle. Here, with the help of Lord Faa’s good-hearted Gyptians, ferocious ice bear Iorek Byrnison (badly voiced by a miscast Ian McKellen), cowboy aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), witch queen Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) and a precious truth-telling instrument called an alethiometer, she confronts her enemies: the corrupt king of the ice bears, Ragnar Sturlusson (Ian McShane), the cruel Mrs Coulter (Kidman typecast as an ice queen) and hordes of Tartar henchmen.
What’s missing is any sense of Lyra’s exhilarating but perplexing journey from childhood innocence to incipient adulthood. In the book, we see everything from Lyra’s point-of-view, sharing her sense of wonder, her doubts and fears, her love for her shape-shifting daemon Pantalaimon. But like the Northern Lights themselves, glimpsed only briefly as a projected image, all this is missing. As with the scary Mrs Coulter, the film should possess, 'a scent of grown-upness, something disturbing and enticing at the same time.'
Instead, it’s a synthetic, flavourless product that lacks the subversive tang of Pullman’s source novel.