The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (2007)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Ian McKellen, Daniel Craig
Extras: Commentary Track, Video Commentary, Featurettes, Trailers, Photo Gallery

When New Line touches a project on DVD it is usually a warrant for high quality. In all the years I've been reviewing DVD, I have yet to come across anything but a stellar release. As the studio ramps up its high definition efforts on Blu-Ray, hopes are accordingly high and I was eagerly anticipating the release of their latest fantasy epic, "The Golden Compass."

Based on Philip Pullman's novel, "The Golden Compass" is the first in a trilogy of books that take us into a world of magic. Here, witches soar the skies on their brooms, strange creatures coexist with man, animals can talk and evil schemes against all things good.

When her uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig) decides to travel to the North Pole to study a strange phenomenon, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) wants to join him – but wouldn't let her. Frustrated, the young orphan tries to revolt but the enchanting Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) offers her a chance to travel north as her personal assistant. Gladly the girl accepts. While friends begin to disappear around her she prepares for the trip, equipped also with the Golden Compass, a strange device that could spell doom if it falls into the wrong hands. Soon however she finds out that the initially charming Mrs. Coulter is anything but friendly. Lyra escapes form her clutches and tries to make it to the North Pole on her own. Her first step is to find help in some of the locals, including Iorek Byrnison, a fearsome polar bear determined to pay back the injustice done to him by his own kind.

"The Golden Compass" is an epic story that doesn't spend a lot of time dawdling to set up background story. After only a few short minutes the story pulls the viewer into a maelstrom of events that propel the story forward and into its magical world. Adapted from a children's book, the story is not as complex as it may seem though I found some of the themes a bit grown-up for children's books. Nonetheless the story works wonderfully and the movie's great visual effects bring to life an enchanting world full of suspense, adventure and action.

I was not familiar with the books and as such I was taken by surprise by the film's open-endedness. I am sure many viewers will feel the same way. In a sense, the movie seems to end in the middle of the story. One the one hand this is a good thing as it make you want to see more, setting up the sequel quite nicely. On the other hand it leaves you staring at the screen going "What?" at the unsatisfactory ending of the film.

All that aside however, "The Golden Compass" is a magical movie that features great characters. Nicole Kidman's icy performance as Mrs. Coulter is surpassed only by Sam Elliott's wonderfully warm Lee Scoresby, and, of course, Sir Ian McKellen's voice talents as the mighty polar bear Iorek.

As soon as you pop this disc in your Blu-Ray player you will be treated to nothing but the best. The film features an incredibly detailed transfer that is unbelievably sharp. However, one has to keep in mind that the film also has a rather "synthetic" and stylized look. It is easy to mistake the smooth silkiness of some of the shots for lack of detail when in fact it was clearly an artistic decision. Especially in the movie's close-ups of the characters you will notice a look that resembles magazine glamour shots. This idealized look may not be everyone's bag, but for what it is, it has been done wonderfully well.
Since the movie also employs excessive computer graphics, the look of the backdrops is also tilted towards the artistic rather than the realistic. This look will not necessarily agree with all viewers but it makes for a tremendous presentation high definition as every little detail is reproduced with staggering clarity. I am not much of a fan of computer-generated animals, as many of you may know, but for some reason the articulate polar bears in this story worked very well for me.
Solid black levels and strong, vibrant colors make "The Golden Compass" truly wonderful to behold.

The audio on the release is presented in a 7.1 channel DTS Lossless Master Audio format, and there is absolutely nothing I can say other than that it is perfect. Reproducing the original mix of the film in uncompressed format, you have an exact replication of the track without any flaws or detractors.

New Line is well known for their quality bonus materials and "The Golden Compass" does not disappoint either. It starts with a great commentary track by writer Chris Weitz who adapted the screenplay from the original novel. He talks in-depth about his approach to the material and how he had to make certain changes to accommodate the different medium. It is an elaborate commentary with a wealth of information.

On the second disc of the release you will find a treasure trove of other materials. No less than eleven featurettes document all aspects of the film and the production. Whether you're interested in the movie's music, the costumes, the adaptation form the novel, the cast or characters, the world or the special effects, there is a featurette for everything. All these featurettes – most of them running around 15-20 minutes in length – are presented in high definition, making for great viewing.
In addition you will find the movie's theatrical trailers on the disc as well as a photo gallery.

"The Golden Compass" has a lot of subtext and undertones and sadly most of these themes have been given more attention in the press than the film itself. I just wish the Catholic Church would just shut up for once and stop pretending being the sole and omnipresent good in this world. If you watch the film for what it is – an adolescent adventure in a fantasy world – it works very well. Sadly, the film flopped pretty badly at the box office making a sequel rather questionable at this point. Without a sequel however, the value of this film is becoming naught as well, as it has no real ending. Still, if you want to escape into a magical world for 2 hours, "The Golden Compass" may just show you the way.