An effort among some Roman Catholics to boycott the movie "The Golden Compass" is looking for direction after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gave the movie a thumbs-up.

Like the book upon which it's based, the movie, which opens in theaters today, has been the subject of criticism that it's anti-Catholic. The story is a fantasy about a youngster who leads a battle against an evil militaristic group that is trying to take control of the world by doing away with free will. The group is called the Magisterium, which in real life is the name of a panel composed of the pope and his immediate bishops.

A conservative Catholic leader is demanding that the critics who reviewed the movie for the Conference of Bishops be fired. In the meantime, rank-and-file Catholics are trying to figure out what their next step should be.

"Two weeks ago there was a lot of buzz about a boycott, but now the talk is about the review," said Joe Towalski, editor of the Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

And a lot of it is angry talk. The Rev. Thomas Euteneuer, president of Front Royal, Va.-based Human Life International, which describes its mission as "upholding the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church," used his website to call for the dismissal of movie critics Harry Forbes and John Mulderig of the Catholic News Service, the church's official news arm. Their review raved about the movie while dismissing concerns that Phillip Pullman, the author of the fantasy trilogy on which it's based, is a professed atheist who is on record as saying, "My books are about killing God."

In particular, the review noted the movie departed from Pullman's book in its explicit references to the church. "Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman's personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure," they said, adding: "... this film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment."

Forbes and Mulderig "have summarily put our hierarchy on record as giving glowing praise to the work of a militant atheist," Euteneuer told the Star Tribune. "This is utterly irresponsible."

Plans for a boycott have been in the works for months. It's being organized by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a New York City agency devoted to combatting anti-Catholicism.

"There is no question that if Christians, who comprise 85 percent of the U.S. population, learn of Pullman's anti-Christian message, they will boycott the movie," the agency predicted.

But movie industry analysts aren't so sure. In the past, religious protests have had little, if any, impact on attendance. "The Da Vinci Code" drew Catholic picketers to theaters (including some in the Twin Cities), earned $210 million in the United States.

"The Passion of the Christ," which stirred up protests among Jewish organizations, took in $370 million.

"These protests rarely have any effect," said Jeff Bosk, an analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co., a Hollywood firm that tracks movie attendance. "Support by the religious community can really help a smaller film, but the opposite isn't true. If they have any effect, it's usually positive [in terms of boosting ticket sales] because they call attention to the movie."

The boycott of "The Golden Compass" had started to lose momentum before the Conference of Bishop's review was released this week as word leaked from advance screenings that the filmmakers had removed most of the book's overt religious references. The Catholic Spirit's Towalski was one of those who saw an early screening and called for a more thoughtful approach.

"I wasn't in favor of a boycott in the first place," he said. "I've never liked the idea of banning a book or a movie. But as a parent, I'm concerned about what my children see and read." In an editorial, he called on parents to see the movie before deciding whether it's appropriate for their children.

The changes from the book begin with having the leaders of the Magisterium wear uniforms rather than robes. This leaves the movie open to interpretation. But that will have little mitigating effect on viewers who are predisposed to see it as anti-Catholic.

"Once you know Pullman's background, it's hard not to see the movie as anti-Catholic," Towalski said.

Which likely means that some potential viewers will stay home, but not enough to make a difference, Bosk said.

"Have you seen the marketing for this movie?" he asked. "It's everywhere. This is a steamroller."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392