With the success of 'Harry Potter', 'Lord of the Rings', and 'The Chronicles of Narnia', Hollywood has been eager to adapt any and every popular children's literary property into a franchise of big-budget feature films. Thus theater screens have recently been cluttered with the likes of 'Eragon', 'Bridge to Terabithia', 'Lemony Snickett', 'Arthur and the Invisibles', and countless more. Some have done better than others. The latest attempt comes from Chris Weitz (director of 'American Pie' and 'About a Boy'), working from the first of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, 'The Golden Compass'.
Set in an alternate universe where people's souls are externalized as talking animal companions called "daemons" that follow them around, the story traces the adventures of plucky orphan Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) living at a boarding school while her rough-and-tumble explorer uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) sets off for the North Pole to investigate a magical Dust from outer space that may hold to key to traveling between dimensions. Knowledge of the Dust upsets the Magisterium, an all-powerful religious body portrayed as a cross between the Catholic Church and the Freemasons. Meanwhile, a conspiracy is afoot involving the kidnapping of children by bogeymen known as "Gobblers." Lyra is taken on as an apprentice by Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), an important woman somehow tied to the Magisterium, but soon discovers her connection to the Gobblers and to terrible experiments being performed on children and their daemons. This all leads to a dramatic confrontation in the arctic between the Magisterium's forces, a band of nomadic rebels called Gyptians, some flying witches, and a race of armored polar bear warriors.
Pullman's novels are controversial for the author's admitted atheistic views (as if that were a bad thing), some of which make their way into his stories. Upon its theatrical release, the movie faced an aggressive boycott by religious forces, who warned parents of the picture's evil intentions to warp their children's minds. That is, of course, a big load of nonsense. While the fictional Magisterium are clearly the villains, the books are more opposed to the abuse of power by domineering organizations than to the concept of religion itself. For its part, the movie almost completely eviscerates any supposed atheistic messages, and tones the content way down for mass consumption. It should also go without saying (but for some reason doesn't) that atheism is in no way inherently evil or immoral, no more than any particular religion might be. Nonetheless, the movie was a box office flop in the United States, though it did better overseas.
It's tempting to blame the film's financial failure entirely on the religious controversy surrounding it, but unfortunately that's not the only factor working against it. Frankly, the movie isn't very good. Although Richards makes an appealing, spunky young heroine, Kidman is deliciously evil, and the production was made with an enormous budget expended on lovely production design and photography, and slathered with expensive visual effects (for which it won an Oscar), the story from the novel has been badly condensed into incoherency. The script frantically rushes from plot-point to plot-point with no breathing room in between to develop its characters or allow the audience to absorb what's happened. Characters are constantly introduced to deliver a monologue of exposition, then drop out almost immediately. Daniel Craig's role would seem to be important, but he's barely in the movie for 10 minutes of screen time.
The picture plods along at a hectic pace, all the while smothered in a bombastic score that quickly becomes wearying. Most of the visual effects, especially the animal companions and the various flying vessels, are fairly impressive, but the quality of the CGI takes a decided dip with the introduction of the polar bears and the artic environments, which are about on the level of those old Coke commercials from the '90s. By the time we get to the big stupid fight between the nice Gandalf cartoon bear and the mean Al Swearengen cartoon bear, the movie feels like it's been dragging on for hours. And yet there are several more climaxes to come, almost all of which resolved by blatant deus-ex-machina events. The official running time may only be 113 minutes, but when I was stuck in the middle of it I didn't think it would ever end.
Rumors abound that many of the movie's problems are the fault of studio interference, and that a longer director's cut may some day see the light of day. I have no idea whether that's true. Even if so, I don't know that 'The Golden Compass' has enough to distinguish itself from the glut of other fantasy films on the market. It falls far short of the standard set by 'Lord of the Rings' or the better 'Harry Potter' entries.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Golden Compass' comes to Blu-ray from New Line Home Entertainment (while they still exist) as a 2-Disc Platinum Series release. The discs come packaged in a really lovely slipcover, and the case art beneath is pretty nice as well. Also appreciated, there are no promos or trailers before the menu, and the main menu screens of both discs automatically mute after a few moments rather than repeat the theme music in an endless loop. Why is it so hard for other studios to realize that the presentation of their product is just as important as the disc contents?
For all its faults of storytelling, 'The Golden Compass' was a big-budget affair with all the benefits of expensive Hollywood craftsmanship. It has extremely slick photography that comes across quite well in this 1080p/VC-1 transfer, presented in the feature's 2.35:1 aspect ratio. At least initially, the picture appears bright and sharp, with next to no film grain or video noise. Colors are vividly delineated, and the excellent contrast range creates a nice sense of depth.
There's some minor black crush in dark scenes, but it's not severe enough to complain about. More bothersome is a lack of textural detail throughout the movie. Facial features have no visible skin pores or variances in complexion. Fine detail resolution is wanting in many scenes, not just those smothered in CGI. I wouldn't be surprised if the image had been run though a Digital Noise Reduction filter or two to smoothen everything out. That's not to say that it looks poor by any means. Most viewers will probably not notice anything wrong, but those with large screens will not count this disc among the best available in High Definition.
On a technical level, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack meets many of the criteria that home theater junkies will find impressive. It makes active use of all the surround channels and has thunderous, punishing bass. When the bears start roaring at one another, your windows are likely to rattle. On an artistic level, however, the sound mix is bombastic and abrasively loud. The tedious musical score is set several dozen times louder than the dialogue and drowns out everything whenever it starts up, which happens in pretty much every scene. The dialogue track itself is a little flat, with the cast's thick accents often difficult to discern. Fidelity is fine, and the score is spread to a broad soundstage, but there's just no break from the monotony. For me, listening fatigue set in long before the movie ended.
Considering the movie's box office failure, New Line has thrown together an impressive batch of supplements for this 2-disc edition, all arranged thoughtfully in the menus and presented in High Definition video. Not the usual EPK fluff, the numerous featurettes cover all the nuts and bolts of making a big-budget feature film in a fair amount of depth.
At the end of the day, I came out feeling sympathetic toward the many talented people who worked extremely hard to make this the best film they could, even if I don't agree that the results met their intentions.
'The Golden Compass' may go down in history as the final straw that broke New Line Cinema's back. Not long after the film's box office failure, the studio was absorbed into the Warner Bros. parent company and most of its employees were laid off. That isn't really the movie's fault, but it must be admitted that it's just not a very good film in any case. As far as children's fantasy epics go, this one is slightly less awful than the first 'Chronicles of Narnia', but only slightly. Regardless, the Blu-ray edition is a winner in all other respects. The video and audio are excellent (if not quite flawless), and the 2-disc set comes with a strong selection of bonus features. If only the movie were better, this would be an easy recommendation. As it is, I'd have to advise a rental.