A big-budget fantasy that attempted to see if it couldn't find a bit more gold in the "Narnia" well, "The Golden Compass" is based upon the novels by Phillip Pullman. I haven't read the novels myself, but I have to believe that would have been a benefit in this case. The story focuses on spirited young orphan Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), who lives in a parallel world where human souls accompany them in the form of animal spirits called daemons. A ruling group called the Magisterium works to maintain their hold on society and keep the populace from having free will.
Staying at Jordan College with her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), Lyra is selected by the beautiful and mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to take a trip to the North. While preparing for her journey, her friend Roger is taken by an organization known as "The Gobblers". Eventually realizing that Mrs. Coulter isn't exactly who she thought she was, Lyra escapes and heads out on her own into the dangerous world in order to find her friend, armed with an alethiometer, a mystical device that tells the truth. She also finds help along the way in the form of an ice bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) and others.
One of the film's main concerns is that it feels like a three-hour epic compressed into just under two in order to keep the kids in the audience from losing interest. As a result, character development is sketchy and the film tries to fit in a legion of terms and rushed plot points that may seem unclear or simply just confusing to those not familiar with the books.
I have to wonder whether or not director Chris Weitz ("American Pie", "About a Boy") was the right choice to helm the picture, and it seems as if he may have as well - Weitz reportedly chose to step down from the project, only to return when the studio and the substitute director (Anand Tucker, "Hilary and Jackie") had disagreements. Weitz has managed to turn in a movie that looks technically stellar, but lacks power and both a sense of awe and mystery. The performances are a mixed bag, with Richards providing the finest effort of the bunch, as her energetic effort manages to hold the interest. Sam Elliott and Ian McKellen provide fine supporting efforts, but Craig and Kidman seem unusually flat.
There's also the little issue of the movie not actually coming to a conclusion as much as just abruptly ending. Clearly meant to be the introduction to a planned trilogy, the movie sort of leaves viewers hanging, but the issue is that - after this film's so-so box office (considering the budget) - will there even be another film?
Overall, I felt "Golden Compass" was rather disappointing, as even though I've not read the book, it's still clear this is a considerably overcompressed adaptation and the result is a movie that is occasionally confusing and often seems in too much of a hurry. Richards offers a good performance and the film is technically impressive, but those elements alone don't manage to carry the picture.
VIDEO: "The Golden Compass" is presented by New Line in 2.35:1 (1080p/VC-1). The presentation quality is very good, showing off the film's exceptional production design, costume design and effects. Sharpness and detail were mostly first-rate, as the image remained smooth and well-defined throughout the film. Shadow detail was also first-rate and small object detail was generally satisfactory. The presentation did show some slight instances of noise in a few scenes, but the image was otherwise free of the usual concerns. Colors looked accurately presented, as the film's rather subdued color palette came across well. Flesh tones also seemed spot-on. The presentation is solid, but doesn't quite reach the level of the best presentations the format has to offer.
SOUND: The film is presented on Blu-Ray with a DTS-HD Master Lossless Audio 7.1 presentation. The film's sound design is moderately aggressive during the most intense sequences, with the surrounds delivering an array of effects and ambience. The sound design could have been taken a few steps further and have provided a greater level of activity and detail (given the material), but the presentation as-is is enjoyable. Audio quality was fine, as Andre Desplat's score sounded bold and rich, while effects and dialogue seemed clear and well-recorded. Overall, this was an above-average audio presentation, but like the video quality, it doesn't stand as demo quality.
EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition offers a commentary from writer/director Chris Weitz, and where the Blu-Ray edition differs from the DVD is that the commentary comes with a picture-in-picture feature that allows viewers to see behind-the-scenes footage (effects work, watching the scene in question being filmed, occasionally Weitz talking on-screen, etc.) in a small box at the corner of the frame. The commentary track is informative but pretty dry, with Weitz providing a solid overview of the production, talking about effects, working with the cast, the immense work involved and more. Overall, not the kind of commentary that has much in the way of repeat viewing value, but fans may want to give it one spin.
The second disc provides a set of additional featurettes that explore various aspects of the project, including "The Novel", "The Adaptation", "Finding Lyra Belacqua", "Daemons", "The Alethiometer", "Production Design", "Costumes", "Oxford", "Armoured Bears", "The Launch" and "Music". The documentary featurettes are excellent, as they do go quite in-depth. They are also presented in HD, which is a nice touch. Trailers and an image gallery round out the package.
Final Thoughts: "Golden Compass" offers a fine performance from Richards, but the adaptation seems far too compressed, which leads to some of the story elements seeming unclear and/or rushed to those who haven't read the books. Technically, this is an impressive movie, but I just didn't find the story - at least as presented here - as compelling or powerful as it should have been. The Blu-Ray edition boasts solid audio/video quality, as well as one extra (the picture-in-picture enhanced commentary) the DVD Special Edition doesn't offer. Rent it.
The Film C+