Since the franchise failed to fly, Judge Gordon Sullivan is pitching New Line execs a more modern take on the books entitled The Bronze TomTom. It won't help. You'll still be lost.
There are worlds beyond our own—the compass will show the way.
I only heard negative things about The Golden Compass during its theatrical release: huge budget, disappointing opening weekend. None of the critiques I heard floating around were terribly specific, just a general disappointment with the film overall. Now that I've seen this film, I think I can safely write off the criticism as fantasy fatigue. In the last decade we've seen a number of fantasy novels turned into big-budget spectacle films (including the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Chronicles of Narnia series). With that in mind, I can certainly understand the "oh no, not another one" feeling I got from a number of film-goers. However, taken on its own merits, The Golden Compass is an excellent entry into the epic fantasy canon. Whether you're new to the film or an ardent admirer, this two disc Blu-ray presentation is the way to see the film.
Facts of the Case
Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards in her first role) is an orphan being raised at Jordan College at her Uncle's (Daniel Craig, Casino Royale) behest. Her Uncle, Lord Asriel, is a famous scientist studying the effects of Dust, a substance that has interesting properties. He hopes, with the aid of the College's money, to mount an expedition which will take him to alternate worlds in search of the truth about Dust. Naturally, Lyra wants to be involved, and when her friend is captured by nefarious "Gobblers," she must leave Jordan's confines in search of her friend. Armed with an alethiometer, a device that tells the truth, she ventures North. Along the way she will be aided and vexed by characters as varied as Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut), the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen, X-Men), and witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green, Casino Royale).
I should mention here that I've never read Philip Pullman's source novels, so this review is from the perspective of someone new to the story of Lyra and her daemon.
My puny attempt at plot summary doesn't do any justice to the sheer scale of The Golden Compass, as it's an epic of the first order. The universe of the film is only a few degrees removed from our own, where peoples' souls exist beside instead of inside them, and are called daemons. The technology has a Victorian, steampunk feel, with lots of gears and a highly ornate style. Although the trappings are novel, the basic story is nothing new: a young child of dubious origin, subject of a prophesy about a coming war, must travel with interesting/cute companions to rescue some people and set previous wrongs right. With this time-tested plot as the backbone, The Golden Compass serves up a number of fun characters, interesting set-pieces, and the aforementioned novel universe.
The Golden Compass wastes no time introducing us to our heroine, Lyra Belacqua. She's smart, brave, and mature for her age, making her a compelling focus for the rest of the story. She's also very ably played by Dakota Richards. Unlike most child actors (who annoy me to no end), Dakota moved through the story, from anger to sadness, with genuine believability, never relying on her youth or good looks to sell her character. Whether or not the other films in the series get made, I look forward to seeing more of her work. Daniel Craig did a fine job as Lord Asriel, though I thought he was given too little screen-time. Nicole Kidman was likewise impressive as Coulter. Few actresses can seem bubbly and threatening at the same time, but Kidman makes it work. The increasingly prolific Freddie Highmore plays Lyra's daemon, and his voice acting is impressive. Even more impressive (although it comes as no surprise) are the voice talents of Ian McKellen as Iorek Byrnison the armoured Bear. He brings both nobility and tragedy to his CGI figure. I was also inordinately pleased when Sam Elliot made an apparance. He brings the same kind of laconic cool he brought to his performance in The Big Lebowski. Overall, this is easily the most impressive cast I've seen in a fantasy in a while.
Although the cast shine brightly, the look of the film is its obvious draw. While the Lord of the Rings films had the breath-taking beauty of the New Zealand landscape as their backdrop, much of The Golden Compass is accomplished with CGI. That said, it's some of the more impressive CGI I've ever seen. The scenes where characters fly through cities and over land look amazing, both lively and detailed. Detail is the watchword of this production. The entire world seems self-contained and consistent, with themed architecture and costumes that look both pleasing and functional. I don't usually find myself interested in such things, but the production design behind The Golden Compass helped draw me into an otherwise alien world.
The production design is well highlighted on this Blu-ray disc. The video looks fantastic, with loads of fine-grained detail and vivid colors. I couldn't detect any problems with either source or transfer. The audio is likewise impressive, providing a rich soundstage to support the epic music while balancing the essential dialogue.
This set also earns its Platinum Edition moniker. There are two commentary options, one an enhanced picture-in-picture affair, the other a more traditional audio feature with writer/director Chris Weitz. I'm not a big fan of PnP stuff, but if you're into that, this commentary lets you see behind the scenes material while hearing discussion of it. The audio-only feature held a bit more interest for me. Weitz is a bit soft spoken, but he spends the commentary discussing production details and giving insight into his actors. Note that the commentary is the same with both options, but the one that is visually enhanced features Weitz talking over the movie with various behind the scenes shots laid over the frame. The included documentaries cover everything from the source novel to the film's debut in an engaging manner, mixing talking heads with behind the scenes footage. For a film with this much CGI, the technical docs were most illuminating, never getting to dry or esoteric. Watching the documentary on the armoured bears made me realize how difficult an achievement it was. While I had been watching the scenes in their kingdom I forgot that everything in the fight scene (except for Lyra) is computer generated. The fact that I forgot is a sign of truly impressive special effects.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a perfect example of "throw you in the deep end" filmmaking. With the exception of a short voiceover at the beginning, the film makes no concessions to those new to Pullman's world, throwing out names and vocabulary with complete abandon. I had no trouble following what was going on, but I can see how many viewers would get lost in the new world.
My main complaint about the film was its episodic nature. I liked all the set pieces, but it felt at times like the filmmakers had a list and as the film went on they were checking scenes off of it rather than letting the film have a few moments for breathing room. This didn't ruin the film for me, but I feel like the 133 minutes was just a ridiculously short running time. With another 20-30 minutes, the characters and plots would have had a few more opportunities to stretch out and plant their feet firmly. I've seen others comment that the film felt rushed. I didn't get that sense, but I still felt the film could have easily been improved with some judicious expansion.
Although it only made a little less than half (70 million) of its original budget of 180 million in the domestic market, The Golden Compass doubled its budget oversees. I mention this because I enjoyed this foray into fantasy a lot more than other recent films (which shall remain nameless), and I'd hate to see a lackluster return at the box office harm the chances for the rest of the books to be filmed. It might require a little more audience dedication than other recent spectacle films, but I think The Golden Compass rewards that dedication with an interesting take on the fantasy formula. This Blu-ray presentation from New Line is top-notch, and the perfect way to experience the film.
My alethiometer tells me The Golden Compass is not guilty. And that's the truth.
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