The Golden Compass (New Line 2-Disc Platinum Series) – DVD Review

Available at Amazon.com

It’s too bad that early teaser trailers from New Line Cinema kept comparing The Golden Compass to Lord of the Rings. While it’s easy to see the logic in trying to get audiences to come to the theaters and get a Tolkien-like experience, this really wasn’t what was waiting for them. A Tolkien-light experience more accurately describes the reaction to the big screen adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s award winning novel; a film that gives you beautiful sights and nice character work, but one that still ultimately feels sort of empty next to the completely immersive experiences of Fantasy genre hallmarks like the Lord of the Rings films or the original Star Wars Trilogy.

This is not to say that The Golden Compass is a movie that should be totally dismissed; far from it in fact. The universe presented in the film is at times a fascinating one, taking place on an alternate Earth where people’s souls live outside their bodies in animal form called daemons. This is a world where we’re treated to Science Fiction utopias, Polar Bear kings, fierce Egyptian sailors, warrior witches and flying cowboys. We’re even given an all powerful villain in the mysterious Magisterium, a group bent on not only world domination, but being able to control people’s thoughts and actions as well in order to achieve their ends.

Standing in their way is a little orphan named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards). Like most young children, Lyra’s a curious young girl who often gets into trouble, and while getting into one bit of mischief, she gets mixed up in a dispute between her uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig), and the Magisterium itself, a moment that ends up sending her on a grand adventure to frozen wastelands, scientific monstrosities, frontier towns and a climactic battle. Too bad the movie, meant to be the first part of a trilogy, may never reach its final resolution because of this film’s shabby box office take.

Now, The Golden Compass’ failure at the box office can be attributed to several factors, most notably its mixed reviews and its vilification by both secular groups and fans of the original book. Both seemed to take issue with religious metaphors within the story, and whether they were too atheist or not enough. Sure, one can see that the metaphors are there, but it’s all on the surface, which to be honest is the real problem with the entire film. The Golden Compass never does feel like it’s trying to mean something, or that you should get behind it or its characters, and ultimately this is its most damning failure.

Sure, there are some interesting performances here, especially Sam Elliot’s awesome cowboy/aeronaut Lee Scoresby or Nicole Kidman’s shady Mrs. Coulter, but nothing is really playing very deeply underneath what you can already see. For instance, Christopher Lee is in the movie playing a character only named First High Councilor. He doesn’t do or say much, he’s just there because you know he’s immediately going to be evil (he’s Christopher Lee after all), and because he’s associated with Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and any number of Dracula films. Much like everything else in this movie, he’s just window dressing.

One just wishes that the film just had more feeling, more passion. The movie is still fun, but never makes you feel like you’re a part of something, or really that you’re even visiting a real place. Everything is so clean and colorful that it never feels lived in, even the Egyptian ships that are supposed to remind you of pirates and buccaneers have all the atmosphere of a CGI soundstage. You just get the feeling that the whole thing is artificial, especially in the particularly bloodless battle at film’s end. Compare this to even the T-Rex showdown in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake or the Autobot/Decepticon battle at the end of Transformers and this doesn’t even come close in intensity. This isn’t even in the same league as the major battles featuring elves or Jedis.

Still, it’s difficult not to perk up when the movie focuses on characters like Scoresby or the Ice-bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). These are characters that are captivating on screen, and to be honest you wished more of the movie was about them. Indeed, the journey of Byrnison and his quest for redemption is the picture’s most compelling storyline, and when he and Scoresby are absent, you feel the difference on screen. Unfortunately, in their search to create the most child-friendly and commercially viable movie possible by bringing the film in around bloodless two hours, film makers have ended up abbreviating the entire experience, especially your emotional attachment to it.

The difference between the worlds of Tolkien, Lucas, and even the later Harry Potter films and a film like The Golden Compass, is that the former pictures really make you feel like a part of their rebellions and battles. They get you so emotionally involved that you can’t help but get swept up in their universe and their mythologies. The Golden Compass is a piece of candy that is pleasant, but when it’s over its not long before it’s forgotten.

Pretty much flawless here, and the video transfer is absolutely gorgeous, showing no signs of debris and displaying only gorgeous color throughout. The film is of course presented in Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio mix is also pretty much flawless, ramping up during the film’s Action scenes, but never overpowering dialogue.

Audio Commentary by Screenwriter/Director Chris Weitz – To be honest, I liked the film more after hearing this commentary. Weitz is obviously a guy that is passionate about this film, and seems to know the book series in and out, discussing every single change he made in the film’s screenplay from the source material. Unfortunately the confidence that Weitz shows on this track doesn’t always translate to the screen.

Featurettes – On the Special Features disc of this 2-Disc set, you get 11 comprehensive Featurettes on the making of the movie in three sections; Origins, Behind the scenes, and Lyra’s World, each covering various facets of this story and its transition to the big screen. Beginning with Phillip Pullman talking about the story’s origin in the mini-doc The Novel to The Launch, which explores Dakota Blue Richards having to deal with the press tour surrounding the movie’s premiere, nearly everything that went into creating this movie is covered here. Then again, the one thing that I wish was present and is not is a discussion on the movie’s controversy. There’s around 3 hours of documentary footage, and not once does Pullman or anyone on the production team try to defend this story or the movie from its critics. Again, this is just another example of The Golden Compass not showing enough heart.

Trailers – You get several trailers for this film and several New Line releases, especially a gigantic trailer featuring all three Lord of the Rings films.

Galleries

The Golden Compass is a highly watchable film, but not anywhere close to being a great one. This is a movie loaded with potential, but also one that is determined to not use it, creating an artificial backdrop that makes the film wholly unmemorable. The DVD for the movie is quite spectacular though, and makes for hours of discovery, I just wish it was for a better movie.

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New Line Cinema presents The Golden Compass. Directed by Chris Weitz. Starring Dakota Blue Richards, Ian McKellen, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, and Daniel Craig. Written by Chris Weitz. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated PG-13. Released on DVD: April 29, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.