Bearing in mind that no film version of this book could ever completely satisfy me--it's just too rich a book, and one I'm so close to that, yes, I would marry it if I could--I thought it was beautifully done. Everything was essentially included, spirit- and plot- and character-wise, and my quibbles are minor.
I was quite concerned about Lyra from the trailers, as most of her lines of dialogue seemed terribly dead and she looked so staid in every shot--okay, who the hell put together those trailers to make Dakota Blue Richards look so bad? She was a wonderful Lyra. Sassy, fluid, a skilled liar; you could believe all her moments of clever planning. Loved her.
I'm already a Daniel Craig fangirl, so he didn't need a thing to win me over; I knew he'd be a perfect Lord Asriel and he was. Loved his little corner-of-the-mouth grins at Lyra whenever she went all "oh no you di'int" on his adult ass.
Nicole Kidman is not my Mrs. Coulter, but that is my problem and not, I think, her fault. My Mrs. Coulter is several things: first, she's modeled on Natasha Richardson, who was the first narrator that I encountered performing an audio version. Second, she does not exude wickedness from moment one. She's elegance and charm and she gives Lyra the first idea that being a lady might not be a bad thing after all. And we don't see just how frightening she is until she and Lyra clash over the handbag. But Kidman's "va-va-voom, here comes evil in a tight dress" first appearance didn't gibe with that for me at all, so, that set things off badly for me. But Kidman got so much of Mrs. Coulter exactly--coldhearted, deceptive, and momentarily weak where Lyra is concerned; it is not fair for me to blame Kidman. It's my problem.
I'm on the side of fans who prefer their Iorek Byrnisson semi-emotionless, which means Ian McKellan, much as I love the guy, did not quite satisfy me. Iorek and the rest of the armoured bears are characterized quite specifically as not being human, which is why the love Lyra has for him is so profound. She loves him for what he is despite his lack of humor or human-type affection. It's also why Iofur (whatever they renamed him to in the film) can be lied to and tricked, because he does not want to be a true bear; he wants to be human. But how the hell do you show that in a film? I didn't expect that to be demonstrated; more of my "a film of this book could never completely satisfy" issue. Iorek was still well-done despite the choice to give him more inflection; I suspect on a re-watching I'll feel better about it.
Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala could not have been more perfect. Could not. And I can't imagine there will be many people displeased with Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby. (My Lee's less grizzled, but it was easy to revise my image as soon as I heard he'd been cast.)
Freddie Highmore as Pantalaimon gets the same unfair criticism from me as Nicole Kidman does: he's not my Pantalaimon. My Pantalaimon doesn't have a child's voice, but why shouldn't Pan have that very thing, if he's the daemon of a child? It makes sense, so I have to shut up on this one.
I can never remember the actor who played John Faa, even though he's in 30% of the films I see, it seems. He was great, and so was the guy playing Farder Corum. (I keep thinking Paul Bettany's gonna look a lot like him in 30 years.)
And then there's that truncated ending. Not hacked-off, not abruptly done away with; to be fair, the ending works for the film. The cut still pokes at me, though. As things stand right now, Lyra's got one evil parent and one--well, not loving, but one semi-decent, on-the-side-we-want-to-win parent. The beauty of the book's ending is that Lyra realizes there's no one upon whom she can depend save for herself and Pan. I missed that, though I can see how moving the ending to the start of the next book does one crucial thing: it puts Lyra back in the story immediately. Otherwise we have to trust that the audience will be interested enough in this new character, Will, and a seemingly mundane setting, not to chafe and mutter, "Where the hell's Lyra and where are the freaking zeppelins 'n' polarbears 'n' shit?" for twenty minutes.
The religious issues--ah, what can I say that ten thousand Christians and atheists haven't said already. The Magisterium does feel like a church and not merely a government division. A great many stylistic choices in costume and setting and actions (genuflecting, etc.) reflect this. One notable moment comes when a rustic building of the Magisterium--named specifically as such--is shown and the entire mural-decorated front looks like a church. Overall I was pleased at how closely it dared to follow the spirit of the book. I think this film, isolated, has a voice against oppressive religious doctrine. But so does any given day on the History Channel. I mean, fifteenth-century Europe was not a pretty time in Christianity's history, but that doesn't mean those who consider themselves Christians today have to either embrace the auto-da-fe or get out. One can agree that mistakes have been made but still defend one's faith. So. Let's see how the next two films pan out.
One of my favorite scenes was between Lyra and Iofur, with her lying to him so smoothly; my heart was pounding at how perfectly done it was. I remember thinking, when she asks him, "Ask me something only a daemon would know," "Okay, in the book she asks to go into another room so he won't see her consult the compass; she can't do that in the film because that'll mess up the action, and if she just turns her back so he can't see that's kind of lame because of course he'd want to see what she's doing; how will they handle it?" And when she calls the alethiometer a daemon mirror--"We use them to see the knowledge in our eyes" (paraphrasing)--oh, I freaked at how clever an addition that was. I'm sure Pullman either wished he'd thought of that or he gave them the idea himself.
The technology was wonderful--not quite steampunk, no; too sophisticated for that. Cleverer. The carriage with its odd electrical gyroscope had me clenching my fists in delight.
The visual effect of the daemons losing their existence with the death of their humans was great (and I bet the film's creators were delighted that they got to have golden explosions of light all over the place in the fight scenes).
Hooray that they kept in the spy-fly in the tin, and Lyra's use of it!
A significant change near the beginning--the matter of who poisons the tokay. That was a big alteration from the book and yet I don't quibble with it at all, because let's face it--in a film, the villains require condensing, along with everything else.
Hey--for all you fans of the book--how many of you gasped, "Oh, no--" when Billy Costa referred to his daemon as "Ratter"? Yeah, you can all come over to my house for cookies and hot chocolate.