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Over the last decade, the fantastical worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling have dominated the genre’s literary and filmic realms, and for good reason. The longevity of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the record shattering sales of the Harry Potter series have translated to the big screen with an enormous degree of success – a success Chris Weitz hoped to replicate in adapting the first installment of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass. Unfortunately for Weitz, Pullman’s modern retelling of Paradise Lost proved a more difficult undertaking than both the Boy Wizard and the One Ring, and the results are markedly disappointing.
The Golden Compass follows Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a mischievous yet lovable young girl who just happens to live in a parallel universe to our own. In this alternate world, each human has a an animalized external soul, a mysterious particle called Dust dominates scholarly attention, and a power hungry institution called the “Magesterium” tries to, as its pawn Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) says, “Tell people what to do – not in a mean and petty way, but in a kindly way, to keep them out of danger.” If you’re detecting a strong anti-religious tone, then you’re correct, although the books extrapolate the Magesterium metaphor tenfold while the film literally severs all ties to Pullman’s preaching. The removal of such a mature theme is understandable, especially since fantasy epics are properly aimed at children and younger adults (with all due respect to fully grown geeks). But what is completely unforgivable, and ultimately the film’s biggest downfall, is the furiously haphazard pace with which Weitz chooses to present Lyra’s story.
If you think “furiously haphazard” might be hyperbolic, consider this: the first Harry Potter film is 152 minutes long, the first Lord of the Rings film lasts 178 minutes, and no segment of either series is shorter than 140 minutes. The Golden Compass is 113 minutes, which means it’s under two hours long -- that’s just way too short. Being a huge fan of the books myself, I can attest that Pullman’s novel is definitely not lacking in content or back-story, so unless the movie was shortened by meddlesome execs, Weitz made a massive miscalculation.
For example, Daniel Craig is limited to two small scenes even though his character, Lyra’s Uncle Asriel, is an integral part of the narrative. In addition, significant secondary characters like Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay) and Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) are severely underdeveloped and rendered almost irrelevant. There’s also the minor issue of the last 50 pages of the novel being completely absent. Obviously, when you adapt a 400 page novel for the screen, there are going to be notable differences, but where cutting the admittedly meandering Tom Bombadil out of LotR made perfect sense, shaving Lyra’s tale down to a 113 summary is inexcusable. To fully understand the motives and emotions of the characters, a reading of Pullman’s book is required, and if that isn’t already the cardinal sin of literary adaptations, it should be.
It’s normally hard to harp so harshly on a film for its duration, but The Golden Compass’s short running time overshadows its many positives and thus, is no doubt its fatal flaw. And it’s really too bad, because Richards does everything within her control to carry the film on her slight shoulders, as she springs Lyra from the page with remarkable ease. What makes her debut role even more impressive is that she was plucked from an open casting call and had no prior acting experience – talk about natural talent. As perfect as Richards is as Lyra, Kidman matches as Mrs. Coulter – her cold, fake, and undeniably sexy demeanor is exactly what Pullman depicted in his book. Rounding out the acting department are the aforementioned botched characters who are actually played by extremely talented actors (Green, Craig, Elliott) who shine in their limited screen time, which in itself is a positive but only highlights how horribly underused they are.
The film’s other main strength is its visuals, which bring Pullman’s world to life with breathtaking beauty. Aside from a terribly ugly golden monkey (although it’s supposed to be ugly, it looks unnatural), the daemons are extremely well rendered, and the landscapes of drizzly London and the freezing Arctic are seamlessly depicted. Fans of the book will also be happy to know that the armored bear fight transfers well to the screen, and Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) is as likable as ever. Alas, so much to tell, and so little time to tell it.
The Golden Compass is an entertaining film, but mainly because it looks good, boasts great acting, and is so ridiculously short that nobody can ever legitimately call it boring. In the end, it’s a film that can only be described as disappointing. It’s one of those movies you walk out of saying, “Wow, wasn’t the girl who played Lyra great!” or, “Those visuals were awesome!” – but then the next day, you’ve already forgotten what it was actually about. Here’s hoping for a 150 minute version of The Subtle Knife (the second book), although with New Line Cinema folding, Lyra may not get a second chance.
The audio and visual quality of The Golden Compass’s Blu-ray disc is pretty spectacular, with the fantasy special effects, expert (if only slightly overused) CGI, and on location shooting in Oxford offering Blu-ray the perfect opportunity to flaunt its next-gen attributes. If this truly is New Line Cinema’s last release, then nobody can deny their efforts to deliver quality products, because the 2-disc release of the film is also jam-packed with extras.
The Golden Compass’s special features section boasts almost three hours of extra material, which is almost unprecedented for an initial release. The first feature is an audio commentary with director Chris Weitz (who also co-wrote the script), and even though I seemingly shred him in my review, he’s quite passionate about the books. After listening to him speak so affectionately about his film, I have to believe the studio had a hand in shortening it. Only time will tell, but I’m hoping we’ve still yet to see Weitz’ true vision.
The second section of the features offers three documentaries. The first one, “The Novel: Author Philip Pullman and the Consequences of Curiosity”, is of particular interest to fans of Pullman and his books. The piece is about 20 minutes long, and it offers some interesting insight into Pullman’s life and his work on His Dark Materials, among other things. The second doc, “The Adaptation of Writer/Director Chris Weitz” further explores Weitz’s on-again-off-again role as director and the three years of his life he gave to the film. The third doc, “Finding Lyra Belacqua: Introducing Dakota Blue Richards,” is a 15 minute look at the process of casting Lyra and how they eventually found Richards. Again, this feature underscores just how impressive Richards is in her rookie performance.
The next set of features is quite extensive, in that it offers 8 “making-of” mini-features all presented in HD: “Daemons,” “The Alethiometer: Creating the Truth Measure,” “Production Design: The Emotional Fabric of a Parallel World, Costumes,” “Oxford: Lyra's Jordan,” “Armoured Bears: The Panserbjørne of Svalbard,” “Music,” and “The Launch: Releasing the Film.” It’s a rarity, but all of these mini-features are worth watching as they offer an extremely in-depth look at the monstrous amount of work that went into the film. I can’t pick out a personal favorite, because I really did enjoy them all, and actually watched most of them twice. And while they didn’t sway me enough to rate the film any better, these mini-features certainly gave me a greater appreciation for the sheer amount of people, time, and effort that goes into making a big budget film.
Finally, there are several “Image Galleries” that correspond to the armored bear, alethiometer, production design, and costume mini-features that allow you to leisurely peruse the finer points that often go unnoticed during a single viewing of a film. Again, I didn’t rate the film any higher after guiding my way through the galleries, but for the extremely avid fan, they are definitely worth a look.
It’s funny; in order to do this review, I rented the film so I could re-watch it, as opposed to buying it, which I’ll do for any film I enjoy. But now that I’ve seen it again, and watched the special features, I’m thinking about purchasing it. Admittedly, I’m only considering it because I’m such a big fan of the books, but either way, it’s a true testament to the quality of the special features section. I can only recommend a purchase if you’re a Pullman devotee, but The Golden Compass is still a solid rental for every movie lover.
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