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THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Ian McKellan, Ian McShane, Freddie Highmore, Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Daniel Craig
Director: Chris Weitz
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1 ES, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: New Line Cinema
Features: See Review
Length: 113 Minutes
Release Date: April 29, 2008

“Is that ALL?!”

Film ***

Here is a unique fantasy adventure with a much darker tone than we’re used to, not to mention an engaging and imaginative story. The Golden Compass is a superbly crafted and welcome addition to the genre. And like Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, this is a remarkable blending of story and incredible special effects. Who would’ve guessed that American Pie director Chris Weitz had it in him to make such a fantasy spectacle?

It won the Oscar for visual effects, and although I was rooting for Transformers to take home the crown, I can’t say I object to this movie’s victory. Of all the movies I’ve seen involving talking animals, this has got the most astonishing effects work to hit the screen yet. When a polar bear or any other animal speaks in this movie, you believe every second of it.

This is based on the first book in the trilogy known as His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The setting is in an alternate universe where humans are paired with animal counterparts, known as daemons. The young heroine of the story is Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan raised by scholars of an Oxford-like university.

Lyra is the niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who places in her possession a device called the Alethiometer, the golden compass, which is capable of telling the truth about anyone and anything. It’s all part of Lord Asriel’s plan of rebelling against the Magisterium, the big brother-like dictatorship that rules this world, by establishing a world where free will is allowed. The Magisterium, led by the sinister Ms. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), fears the presence of this golden compass because it represents an alternative to thought control.

Before long, Lyra is on the run from the Magisterium, which it turns out is using orphans for experiments involving the removal of their souls. She comes into contact with a pirate-like group called Gyptians, as well as flying witches, headed up by Serafina (Eva Green). And for protection, Lyra is guarded under the fierce armored bear Iorek (voiced magnificently by Ian McKellan).

At the heart of this effects-driven adventure is a truly incredible sequence of visual effects magic that is so spectacular, that I could easily recommend the movie based alone on this scene. It’s a polar bear fight between Iorek and Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane), the reigning ruler of the ice bear army. Besides being a dynamite polar bear slugfest, the effects work combined with the astonishing vocal work by both actors make for a riveting scene that you won’t soon forget.

By now, you’ve no doubt heard about the controversy the film has come under from religious groups. The books upon which it’s based do depict the Catholic Church as the villain, and also end with the defeat of God. Author Pullman wasn’t shy about admitting his atheism, or the true theme of his books.

But I’m here to set the record straight, I’m a devout Christian and I enjoyed every bit of this movie. The religious elements have appropriately been put aside, as the villains of the story now represent a big brother sort of dictatorship. Besides that, it’s simply an enjoyable fantasy adventure that anyone can enjoy, no matter what one’s views of religion are.

The Golden Compass is a harmless, deeply enthralling adventure with a tightly wound pace and phenomenal visuals. It presents a world you can’t help but get swept up in. It’s a movie that really delivers in both story and spectacle!

Video ****

New Line has issued yet another remarkable looking presentation, one that easily ranks as one of the year’s best! The anamorphic picture is strong and alive with amazing detail from beginning to end. Image quality is nothing but crisp, clear quality and the colors are nothing short of magnificent!

Audio ****

WOW! What a stunning piece of sound quality! Offered in both 5.1 EX and DTS 6.1 ES, this is one audio presentation that will practically engulf you right in the middle of the movie. All the expected technical elements for a fantasy epic are in place here, with magnificent results. The special effects work results in countless sequences of remarkable surround sound, as do various set pieces. The music score by Alexandre Desplat is indeed another highlight of the presentation.

Features ****

The words New Line 2-Disc Platinum Series should indicate the high quality of extras included on this release! Disc One includes a commentary track with writer/director Chris Weitz.

Disc Two contains extensive behind the scenes material. The documentaries are split into three sections; “Origins” which includes the segments “The Novel”, “The Adaptation” and “Oxford”. The second section, “Behind the Scenes” features the segments “Finding Lyra Belacqua”, “Costumes”, “Music”, “Production Design” and “The Launch”. The final section, “Lyra’s World” contains the segments “Armoured Bears”, “The Alethiometer” and “Daemons”.

Summary:

The Golden Compass is a visually striking and very engaging addition to the fantasy genre. It’s hard to tell if we will be treated further film adaptations of the remaining stories, in light of the needless controversy, but I’m all for it. If it’s a pure sweeping adventure spectacle you seek, then look no further than this!

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