The Golden Compass is set in a parallel world where people's souls manifest themselves as small animals, talking bears fight wars, and children are mysteriously disappearing. At the centre of the story is a 12-year-old girl, Lyra, who sets out to find and rescue her best friend, Roger, and ends up on an extraordinary quest to save not only her own world, but ours as well. In her journey's Lyra will encounter the impossibly glamorous and possibly dangerous Mrs Coulter (perfectly played by Nicole Kidman) and have to deal with Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), a ruthless adventurer and scholar with a mysterious past.
So what did I think of the movie? Well it wasn't a good as I was hoping. Sure, I never expected Lord of the Rings, or anything even approaching that (although even New Line promoted it in trailers as being from the same studio possibly in the remote chance it would be equal to that trilogy!), but The Golden Compass fails to fire on many levels. As one who has never read the books I felt that the opening was far too rushed. The movie required more build up, more character development, more background so you get to know the characters before they all set off on their journeys. In fact, if you take out over 10 minutes of credits at the end of the movie you are left with a movie only 1 hour 43 minutes long, and it could have easily accommodated an extra 15-20 minutes without feeling too long.
For me, the worst part of this movie though was the ending. It ends very abruptly, too abruptly in fact and leaves so many loose ends it makes Paris Hilton seem, ermm, let's call it not so loose! Indeed I wasn't aware until I did some research for this review that New Line forced director Chris Weitz to move the ending of the first movie to become the opening of the next movie to give it that 'wow' factor. While that is all well and good, the big question is still being asked - will the next two books actually be made into movies at all. If not, well, that leaves this movie very open ended!
While I haven't read the books myself it is interesting to note that much of the religious overtones have been removed. Many Christian movements were against the novels strong tones against religion, and that has been removed from the film version. Some of the violence has also been toned down. Apparently in the books when the armoured bears fight the victor eats the heart of the fallen (see - research does pay off sometimes!).
The Golden Compass was actually the winner of the Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards for 2007 and at the time I was pretty disgusted that Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End lost out to this children’s movie. Now that I have seen it though I can see why it won, and deservedly so. While there are some moments where the CG daemons look, well, CG there are so many more shots that look simply astounding. The bear fight, the final battle, the large sweeping views over the city skyline. All gorgeous.
So this is a good movie, nothing more, nothing less. Youngsters and fans of the books will likely get more out of this movie then me, but the rushed pace, and ending leave much to be desired. Having said that I do hope that New Line do make the two sequels as there is plenty of potential here, a strong cast and obviously some great material. Time will tell...
The Golden Compass is encoded using the VC-1 codec in 1080p at the movies original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. While generally very nice to look at this isn't a crystal clear transfer. There is an amount of black crush (where details seem to be washed out in darker scenes), and the picture seems to lack some sharpness in certain scenes. Still, this is an otherwise solid transfer and one which provides a vastly superior alternative to DVD.
Sadly it appears that one of the issues with this disc, and possibly why the bitrate isn't as high as it could have been is the included Enhanced Visual Commentary. With the disc not authored (we don't think) using Profile 1.1 (where the second video stream is overlaid) it means that there is a second encoded video on this disc, thus gobbling up valuable space. This space could have been put towards the proper movie presentation instead.
New Line haven't disappointed on Blu-Ray yet, and they're not going to start with The Golden Compass. The audio on this disc is provided in one format - English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. The audio experience here is exciting with lively use of surround sound channels, clear dialogue, and brutal effects - particularly during the fighting scenes. I did find though that the dialogue can be drowned out by music and effects at times. It's never to the point of total confusion, but a slight annoyance. Still, this Blu-Ray disc is a perfect replication of the cinematic experience and one which won't disappoint.
Sadly the only option for subtitles on this is English SDH and it appears to be accurate to the dialogue. I do wish though that New Line would include a straight English subtitle track as well so that, as was the case recently, a friend of mine who can read English better then translate from voices, can watch with subtitle, but without the descriptions of other audio which they can still hear.
Enhanced Visual Commentary by Writer/Director Chris Weitz (HD): Containing the same as the audio commentary this has the benefit of including Picture in Picture with a camera on Chris, but more importantly, and impressively, plenty of behind the scenes footage as well.
Disc Two is where the bulk of the extras can be found, and as with all New Line Blu-Ray releases all the video footage is presented in HD using the VC-1 codec. Not only do you have the documentaries, but each also has a series of still galleries which can be viewed separately with dozens of images from the production.
The Novel (19:07/HD): Author Philip Pullman discusses the writing of The Golden Compass including inspiration, troubles he had writing the book, and how it all fell into place. Chris Weitz, who wrote the screenplay, and the movies producer Deborah Forte also provide comments on the books. This was really a great piece about the original books upon which this movie is based.
The Adaptation (16:11/HD): A detailed look at the pre-production that went into the movie. This featurette discusses Chris Weitz adapting the script, to dropping out as director, and then being re-instated when New Line and the alternate director Anand Tucker had a falling out.
Finding Lyra Balacqua (15:08/HD): With a movie such as this finding the perfect actress to fill the lead role of Lyra was crucial to the success of the movie. Dakota Blue Richards was that actress and this featurette looks at how she got the part (including auditions) and filming on set. We must say, the filmmakers did a brilliant job in casting Dakota, she is a delightful actress with a big future should she pursue it in future.
The Alethiometer (14:57/HD): A look at the thought required, and the bronze work process behind making the Alethiometer which appears throughout the movie. For such a small, but critical, object it took an enormous amount of work to get it looking so gorgeous.
Production Design (26:03/HD): This featurette looks at the design work that went into the movie to create a parallel world. Not only does this look at the set and location design, but also the props, artwork and overall style of the numerous locations movie.
Costumes (11:49/HD): A look at the costume designs for this movie. Includes interviews with the costume designer Ruth Myers and that actors who wore those costumes including Nicole Kidman's gorgeous golden outfit.
Oxford (7:32/HD): A look at Oxford in England which is where much of the first part of the film was actually shot.
Armoured Bears (17:43/HD): There is no doubt that the Armoured Bears were one of the highlights of the movie and indeed the CG work here was probably part of the reason why it won the Best Visual Effects Academy Award. This rather lengthy featurette looks at the bears, and focuses on the Bear fight which took 6 months to film!
The Launch (7:58/HD): A look at the promotional efforts that went into the film at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2007, and then at the World Premiere in December 2007. Dakota Blue Richards is a focus of this featurette and offers some insight into what it is like as a young actress to hold the publicity burden with press from around the globe asking questions.
Poster Gallery (HD): A series of 16 posters used to promote the movie.
Trailers (6:45/HD): The Teaser Trailer, Trailer No 2 and the Final Trailer. Each is presented in HD with DTS surround sound.
Review By: Dave Warner