Victorianists who specialize in subjects like Christian controversial literature hardly constitute the target demo for this film. But, speaking as someone who is a VWSISLCCL, I found that the film's anxious tip-toeing around that whole religious thing had some interesting, albeit entirely unintentional, side-effects. Put simply, instead of muttering "Well, that was atheist" to myself, I found myself muttering "Well, that was Protestant."
Huh, you ask?
Chris Weitz and Co. have not, in fact, eradicated all of the religious references from The Golden Compass. What they've eradicated are all specific references to God. The "Magisterium" or "Authority" seeks out and destroys what is explicitly identified as "heresy"; the Magisterium's headquarters have a vaguely Vaticanish look; the nasty guy with the beetle daemon is Fra (Brother) Pavel; and Mrs. Coulter's explanation of Dust is a transparent allegory for the Fall. Fra Pavel, in particular, has ambled straight out of several centuries' worth of both anti-Catholic and anti-clerical literature: he is legalist, authoritarian, underhanded (e.g., the poison), and slimy. (Quite literally: his hair could use some washing.)
The irony, though, is that because the film never attacks religion eo ipso, its supposedly atheistic critique of the Magisterium is indistinguishable from a very traditional (also several centuries' worth) Protestant critique of Catholicism. If anything, Lyra's position as a savior figure, foretold in the witches' prophecies, implies the existence of an alternative religious structure--not the opposition of religion to no religion at all. And the film condemns the Magisterium's attempt to legislate behavior from above on the same grounds as Protestants have condemned the Roman Catholic Church since the Reformation: such external control promotes both legalism (that is, it emphasizes obedience to a law imposed from without, instead of spiritual rebirth from within) and denies the importance of the conscience. Effectively, we have "tradition" opposed to a kind of private judgment, represented in both Lyra's apparently inspired ability to interpret the alethiometer and Lord Asriel's quest for scientific truth. For that matter, Asriel's interest in alternate universes takes on a distinctly Galileo-esque tinge. All of this overlaps with a secular or skeptical critique of religion, of course, but is hardly confined to it. Even the Master's demand for "free inquiry" has solid religious roots, as well as secular ones.
As I said, though, this overlap is no doubt an accident.
Before the reader comes away thinking that this is a Deep Philosophical Film...it isn't. It's a perfectly pleasant--albeit rather rushed--example of fantasy. Even if you've read the novels, the zippy pace may leave you experiencing whiplash. The CGI produces some striking images, including the daemons, the various machines, and the alternative cityscapes and landscapes; unfortunately, the big battle scene overemphasized closeups, making the action choppy and rushed. (The fight between the armored bears, though, was well-done; I was surprised that they left in the gory conclusion.) This is also one of those films which seems purposely designed to employ the entire acting population of the British Isles, with bit parts filled by performers such as Sir Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee. Most of the humans actually manage to survive the CGI, which is not necessarily a given these days. Dakota Blue Richards, who did not come off well in the trailers, turned out to be a nicely spunky Lyra, while Nicole Kidman, who initially seemed wrong for the part, was an appropriately chilly Mrs. Coulter, all gold and ice. Sam Elliott's Lee Scoresby is a reassuring, cowboyish presence. Less impressive is Ian McKellen's rather unexpressive voice work as Iorek, the armored Ice Bear. Overall, this was an undemanding way to spend the afternoon.