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The Golden Compass (2007)

New Line Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 4/29/2008

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 4/24/2008

Adapting a novel for a film is never easy. In a book, ideas can be expressed in just a few words which could take many minutes and millions of dollars to put on screen. Even simple stories often go through many changes in their trip to celluloid. When one wants to adapt a 400-page fantasy novel, there are going to be many challenges, the hardest of which can be making the story coherent for those who haven't read the book. If one tries to cram too much story or too many broad ideas intoa film, the results can be disastrous. The Golden Compass is a prime example of this, as the movie gives inscrutable a new meaning.

As The Golden Compass opens, we are told that there are multiple universes and that "dust" can travel between these worlds. The story takes place in an alternate version of Earth. We learn that in this world, humans are accompanied by animals called "daemons" (pronounced "demons"), which are the physical manifestations of their souls. Here, we meet Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), whose "daemon" Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), who shifts between a bird, a ferret, and a cat. Lyra lives at Jordan College (which is part of Oxford?) with his Uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Lyra learns that Asriel has been on an expedition to the North, where he's found evidence of "dust" -- a discovery which is seen as controversial, especially by The Magisterium. Asriel plans another trip to the North, so Lyra is sent to live with the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Before she leaves, the Master (Jack Shepherd) gives Lyra an "Alethiometer", a "Golden Compass" which enables the user to see the truth. Lyra decides that she doesn't trust Mrs. Coulter, so she flees to find Asriel. Lyra learns that her friends have been kidnapped by "Gobblers", so she feels that she must rescue them. Along the way, Lyra will learn how to use the "golden compass" and make many new allies.

If you think all of that sounds confusing, you should see the movie. Or, maybe you shouldn't. Writer/director Chris Weitz, the maker of American Pie and About a Boy, has bitten off way more than he can chew here, bringing us a movie which never gains its footing, or makes much sense.

One of the main issues with The Golden Compass may be its length. While I usually complain about movies being too long, this one doesn't allow enough time to tell its story. While similar films, such as the Harry Potter series or The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, go well past the 2 hour mark, The Golden Compass basically ends around the 103-minute point, as there are about 10 minutes of credits. Thus, Weitz is forced to cram all of the mythology from the book into the movie. So, those who are unfamiliar with the novels (such as me) are having "dust", "daemons", "gobblers", and many other ideas thrown at them in random succession and the movie never stops to really explain any of it. Perhaps it never meant to -- maybe these are ideas which were supposed to be expanded upon in a sequel -- but this doesn't make the film any more complex or vexing. (I went to Amazon to read the synopsis of the book and by simply reading the brief overview, I understood something which wasn't spelled out in the movie.)

Despite the fact that the movie is packed with ideas, subplots, and characters, it never feels fast-paced. Actually, the pacing is somewhat sluggish at times, and I found myself wishing that the movie would stop doing whatever it was doing and expound on some of the concepts in the movie. Weitz has also managed to suck any heart or suspense out of The Golden Compass. I found that I never cared for the welfare of any of the characters. Perhaps that's because I never had a clear understanding of what they were doing. (It seems that every few minutes Lyra was on a different quest, and I've never seen a character who had such a knack for having to hide in rooms while adults talked about very important plot-points.) The movie contains scenes which should be exciting, but they aren't. (And the bear fight goes on far too long.) The dialogue is also clunky at times, and I hated the way that Lyra kept calling Iorek Byrnison by his full name. She sounded like a kidnap negotiator who keeps using the victim's full name so that the perpetrator will see them as a human being.

The confusing and flat story doesn't get much help from the cast. Casting an unknown may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but Dakota Blue Richards to asked to carry the film as Lyra and she simply doesn't do it. She's in nearly every scene and she has no screen presence or charisma. Her CGI ferret steals scenes from her. Nicole Kidman is OK as the bitchy Mrs. Coulter, but her heart doesn't seem to be into it. Daniel Craig isn't in the film very much and he shows none of the bravado that he did in Casino Royale.

Perhaps the biggest slap in the face from The Golden Compass is that the movie simply ends. It's been well-documented that this film's failure was one of the main causes of the collapse of New Line and this ending reeks of "don't worry, there's going to be a sequel". I expected a "Next time on The Golden Compass" promo to appear. Even if we couldn't compare it to the far superior fantasy films which have appeared over the past few years, I still don't think that The Golden Compass would be seen as a winner. It's ironic that all of the characters in the film are accompanied by souls when the movie doesn't have one.

The Golden Compass finds its way to Blu-ray Disc courtesy of New Line Home Entertainment. The disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 23 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The last third of the film takes place in a snowy landscape, an environment which will usually show grain, and there's none here. The colors look very good, especially the greens and reds. The image does get a tad dark at times in the third act. The image has a nice depth and the image shows a nice amount of detail. The disc offers a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 6.5 Mbps. (That's high!) The dialogue is always clear and audible here (but that doesn't mean that it makes any sense). The stereo effects are quite good and show a nice amount of detail. The surround and subwoofer effects are excellent during the action scenes. The separation between the left and right rear channels is very well done and the bass really packs a punch. Overall, this is a very good technical package.

The Golden Compass 2-disc Blu-ray set contains many extras. (Typically when a DVD cover promises "2 1/2 Hours of Bonus Features", they're including the commentary. Not on this one...) Disc 1 offers an AUDIO COMMENTARY from writer/director Chris Weitz. This is a fairly good commentary as Weitz is given the unenviable task of discussing all of the goings-on by himself. He tackles it the best that he can, talking about the actors, the story, the locations, and the special effects. He touches on casting and the novel somewhat. There is also an "Enhanced Visual Commentary" which offers Weitz's commentary accompanied by picture-in-picture moments which either show Weitz or behind-the-scenes footage of the scene in question being shot.

The remainder of the extras are found on Disc 2. "The Novel" (19 minutes) profiles author Philip Pullman who discusses his views on writing and how the books came about. The interviews with Pullman are mixed with comments from the filmmakers, scholars, and the fans. Pullman doesn't really comment on the movie and there's no discussion (here) of how the film differs from the book. "The Adaptation" (16 minutes) focuses on writer/director Chris Weitz. He talks about how he became the director of the film and how he approached the project. We are treated to a good deal of footage showing Weitz working on the set. He admits that his first draft was very long, but he doesn't talk about what he focused on while adapting the book. "Finding Lyra Belacqua" (15 minutes) explores how Dakota Blue Richards was cast, including audition footage. There is a great deal of footage of the open casting call which was held to find Lyra. This is truly about the casting process and we learn little about Richards. In "Daemons" (20 minutes) Pullman talks about bringing the animals into the story. We then see how they were created, through special effects, for the film. A great deal of work went into the designing of the animals, and there was a challenge of intergrating them into scenes. This is followed by a STILL GALLERY of the "daemons". "The Alethiometer" (15 minutes) combines a discussion of The Golden Compass as part of the story and a view of how the device was created for the film. This is accompanined by an INTERACTIVE GALLERY, which I think was supposed to simulate use of the Compass, but it's very faulty. With "Production Design" (26 minutes) production designer Dennis Gasner discusses the look of the film and the creation of the sets and props. We are treated to concept art and comments on from where certain ideas came. This is followed by three GALLERIES, "Objects", "Vehicles", and "Environmental". "Costumes" (12 minutes) has costume designer Ruth Myers unveiling the clothes for the film, through concept art and real samples, and is paired with a GALLERY. "Oxford" (8 minutes) shows the crew shooting at the real Oxford. "Armoured Bears" (18 minutes) explores the creation of the bears and the complexity of creating the bear fight scene. We see the "mock" fight scene which was used as a sort of animatic for the scene. We then get a GALLERY of bear models. "Music" (12 minutes) features comments from composer Alexandre Desplat and shows him at work in Abbey Road Studios. "The Launch" offers a POSTER GALLERY, as well as the TEASER TRAILER and two THEATRICAL TRAILERS.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long