As I have brought up before, my Netflix list is getting sparse, so I have been renting movies just because I have heard of them and think they might be interesting, instead of because I have high hopes they will be good. I rented The Golden Compass recently largely because it pissed off The Catholic League, an organized group of bigots who can take offense at nearly anything. The original book may have been considered anti-Catholic when it was written, but the movie is about a fantasy world parallel to our own and the attacks on the Catholic Church are very oblique indeed.
Apart from any controversy, I didn't much care for the movie because I found it tiring, too loud and bombastic and too many special effects used for special effects sake. I saw it on a regular sized TV with no fancy sound system. I can only imagine what an assault it would have been in a theater.
This is a common fault of movies with futuristic or fantasy themes. A lot of money has to be spent to create the future or fantasy world, and like anything, these things can either be shown in a way that draws you in or one that you find vulgar and repulsive. I found the presentation in The Golden Compass too garish and too demanding of attention. In many of the less good fantasy films I've seen recently, and I would put the first Narnia film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the Spider-Man films in this category, the main feeling I get when looking at special effects is the film makers waving and pointing and saying "Look at this! We spent a truckload of money making this!" This is different from the feel I got watching Blade Runner or the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter films, though obviously truckloads of money were spent there too.
This is not a problem with an animated film, good or bad. It costs no more to make a fantastic creature in an animated film than it does to make things that are supposed to be based on things in the real world. Since animation is all made up and unreal, it is the work of the viewer to decide to accept the world as real, and with the best of animation, it is so easy to be drawn in, it's a misnomer to call it "work" at all. When talking about the best of animation for the past thirty years or so, the name at the top of that list is Hayao Miyazaki.
In The Golden Compass, a young girl is the heroine. This is also true in all of Miyazaki's films. This isn't a new or original idea with either, since little girls as protagonists in fantasy stories can be found in the 19th Century writings of L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll. Though Miyazaki does repeat this thematic device, his movies are very different from one another and almost always at a level of story complexity and richness not attempted by other animators or even most other filmmakers in general. This still is taken from Princess Mononoke, his 1997 classic that deals with humans and the natural world in a fantasy context that is very compelling. Miyazaki presents many characters from many different places, some in conflict with one another, some in conflict with nature, none presented as truly evil but some doing evil in the world because they can think of no other way for their people to survive. While there have been many fantasy films from Christian and anti-Christian works of fiction made in the past few years, none of them do as good a job of presenting the ideas of love, forgiveness and redemption as well as the best of Miyazaki's work.
If you want help choosing from the Miyazaki menu, let me say that Mononoke is very violent, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service are very sweet, Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky are good early works but long and very Japanese, and I would put Porco Rosso and Howl's Moving Castle in the category of minor works. I can heartily recommend anything on this list.
Some people have called Miyazaki the Japanese Disney, but I consider this an unfair comparison. Walt was always about making a buck, and the corporation that bears his name today is just like him, only worse. Miyazaki is always about telling the story. If I were going to compare Miyazaki to anyone, I'd compare him to a younger man, Britain's Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit and the founder of Aardman Studios.