The Golden Compass might be the Heaven's Gate for the 21st century. Not in the "crappy movie surrounded by overindulgence" way, but in the "studio that puts all its eggs in one basket only to drop the ball" kind of way. The film was dogged by protests from religious groups, its opening weekend was an underachievement by the studio's (New Line's) expectations, and shortly thereafter merged with Warner Brothers to produce smaller genre- specific films. Ironically, with all of the disappointment around the film, it has made over $300 million internationally despite making a fourth of that total in America, so the chances of a sequel (or sequels) are certain. So what's all the fuss about?
Chris Weitz (About a Boy) took on the challenge of adapting the Philip Pullman novel and directing it for audiences. In this adaptation, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards in her first film role) overhears that her Uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig, Munich) is going to try and find out more behind a possible secret that could change the way a lot of people interpret their world. In the meantime, many of Lyra's friends are going missing, and Lyra tries to rescue them by leaving her school. After Asriel heads up north, she heads up north as well, accompanied by Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, The Hours). Lyra and Mrs. Coulter butt heads from time to time, or more to the point their daemons clash. What are daemons? Glad you asked. A daemon is a small shape-shifting creature that all of the young people have, kind of like a soul. When they grow up, their daemon's take the form of only one animal. When a person dies, their daemon dies with them. Lyra finds out that her child friends are being separated or "cut" from their daemons, and that Mrs. Coulter might be behind it. Before her trip though, Lyra is given an alethiometer, or compass, that's designed to help discern the truth when given circumstances that require answers. This device is sought by Mrs. Coulter and others that, when held in the wrong hands, turns day to night, black to white, and turns ketchup into mustard (that last part I made up, I think).
Lyra eventually does find creatures that express an urge to help her in this quest, which is the good news, principal among them is Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott, We Were Soldiers), along with his old friend, a bear named Iorek (voiced by Gandalf himself, Ian McKellen). And from there, the expedition is set. Lyra has to find her friends with Lee and Iorek's help, and you have witches (including Craig's Casino Royale love interest Eva Green), bears invested in hand to hand contact, some old-school blimp-like flying machines, while everyone tries to figure out if Lyra has a larger place in the world and if so, what it might be. I know, a small British child who might be the answer to everything in the world and has to take on some surreal circumstances in order to accomplish it. It sounds like a lot of books and films over the last several years. And with quite a list of supporting cast on the film including Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay and Christopher Lee, along with Ian McShane, Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas and Freddie Highmore (the latter four lend a voice to the computer-generated daemons), you'd expect some of compelling viewing. But I think as a country, aren't we a little bit tired of the Narnias and Potters in our lives?
I think that Weitz' first fatal flow when it comes to realizing The Golden Compass to screen is that if we really are to go under the presumption that Pullman's trilogy will be made into films, that some backstory is going be necessary. Before credits, The Golden Compass lasts an approximate 113 minutes with credits. When you compare that to the 152 minutes of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone and the 143 minutes of the first installment of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe Series, the viewer is left with a feeling of having to catch up to Lyra's family and what came of them, and by the time you catch up, the film seems to be firmly entrenched in the epic movie mindframe with hordes of computer-generated characters that, really, should you care about what happens to them? This attacking of the book as Weitz does plagues the film. I'd suggest that when you come to the end of the film, one of the first questions you might find yourself asking is "OK, so are they going to make a prequel to all of this?"
Having berated the film a little bit, I should say that it's not a complete wash. The performances by Craig and Kidman are acceptable, and Richards carries the film much better than I expected. And the story does touch on some interesting concepts. The problem is that said concepts seem to get caught up in a story and visual effects that feel unoriginal and incomprehensible, and leave the viewer with an overwhelming sense of apathy.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, The Golden Compass uses the VC-1 codec and probably could have looked a little bit better than it does. There are a number of wide shots that hint at background image depth, and blacks are relatively deep and provide a good contrast throughout the film. However, the tight shots, both on the human and computer-generated faces don't really possess a lot of detail. At times, Craig's beard (before he shaves it off late in the film) looks like a standard definition brown mess, and the graphics used to make Iorek are almost cartoonish. The battle sequences near the end of the picture also seem a little bit soft as well. For a film that won the Best Visual Effects Oscar this past year, The Golden Compass looks good, but not really great.
New Line uses a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack, as is the case with almost all of its titles, and the result isn't too shabby. The dialogue is a little bit weak, but when the action starts to get going, you're going to be pleased. The dirigible in the film thunders with noise, and the action sequences pulse with subwoofer activity. Even when Iorek and Lyla are going through the snow drifts, there's an instance or two of bass, in fact, virtually anything with the bears is going to get the subwoofer engaged. Speaker panning and directional effects are also present and active throughout the film as well. Aside from the first half of the film where things are fairly dialogue driven, The Golden Compass works well in the lossless format.
On standard definition, there is a single disc version of the film, along with a two-disc Platinum Series release, which has a couple of bonuses on the first disc, with the second being devoted to the remainder of the supplements. While the standard definition version is not a direct port, us lucky Blu-ray folk get most of what's the two-disc edition, starting with a commentary by Weitz on the feature. Even though he's the only one on the track, he's brought quite a bit of material to the commentary. He gets into the story, character examinations and motivations quite a bit and talks about what he changed in the book, and how he was able to cast who he did. He also possesses a good recollection of what occurred on set occasionally, and helps point out what was real film-shot content and what was computer animated. The end of the track has him talking about what he plans to do for the sequels, so yes, there will be sequels, in case you were intensely curious. Clearly he's passionate about the material and it's a nice track to listen to. The Enhanced Visual Commentary is exclusive to the Blu-ray disc and is another way of saying that it's a running picture-in-picture commentary track that includes the same commentary that Weitz recorded, and includes some of the same footage from the proceeding supplements, along with a whole host of on-set footage.
The supplements on disc two are presented in high definition and a DTS soundtrack, both of which are welcome surprises. Starting off we've got "The Novel" (19:07), which examines Pullman's inspiration with ample assistance and interviews from the author. Weitz and the film's producers discuss what they thought about the film, and separate admirers talk about the book and its critical and popular impact. Pullman also discusses what he liked about writing the book, while the cast share what they like about it, and even the difficulty to produce a film on the book is talked about in a bit of surprising candor. After that, "The Adaptation" (16:11) looks at Weitz' attempts to make the book into a watchable film effort. Weitz talks about how he reached the material in the first place and how New Line got to him with it, with both parties admitting that Weitz was not at the top of the list. A director change during production is recalled, with Weitz and New Line both discussing why Weitz left and eventually returned, and the cast and crew talk about what a nice guy he is. Again, I wasn't expecting such honesty in these pieces, but it certainly was nice to see. Afterwards, "Finding Lyra Belacqua" (15:08) looks at the exhaustive U.K. casting for the role, combined with ample interview footage of Richards and her mother, along with other aspiring Lyras, as they talk about how they heard about the open auditions and what they did at said auditions. Pullman discusses the allure of Lyra's character in other young girls, while Weitz talks about what type of look they wanted for her. There's also quite a bit of screen and wardrobe test footage of Richards, along with the stars' thoughts on her. "Oxford" (7:32) examines the film's location of same name and other British locations, while the "Music" (11:50) piece looks at composer Alexandre Desplat's scoring sessions and recording at Abbey Road. "The Launch" (7:58) looks at the press both at Cannes and at the film's premiere, mainly though Richards' perspective and those around her, including her mom some more and her hair and makeup artist. A veritable slew of stills galleries that can be played and/or scrolled though are included, covering the Daemons, Alethiometer and various computer-generated and real-life aspects of the production. A teaser and two trailers complete things.
To New Line's credit, they've given The Golden Compass a slew of bonus material that surprisingly covers some of the production's warts, and yet they give it a decent high-definition presentation to boot. The film is the main problem here. I wasn't wowed, and apparently a few others weren't as well, but it's clear that this trilogy of films will be realized at some point in the future. As a disc release, the merits of The Golden Compass are enough to outweigh the theatrical product and I'd suggest that you give this a try.