Here's a film that should be much bigger and bolder than it turned out to be. Released by the now-defunct New Line in the wake of said studio's mammoth success story that was "The Lord of the Rings," Chris Weitz's "The Golden Compass" was obviously engineered to be the heir apparent to Peter Jackson's landmark fantasy franchise (the original teaser trailer began with a golden ring, tossed up into the air, transforming into the golden compass). But despite the best intentions of all involved, "The Golden Compass" fails to capture the qualities of its wonderful source material. What could have been a daring, thought-provoking, and thematically interesting cinematic experience instead devolves into a nice-looking but ultimately flat screen journey.
The frustrating part is that there's a good movie in here somewhere. Weitz obviously has the chops to elicit strong performances all around, the script is tight, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the effects are generally impressive - if not wholly convincing. The film also gets bonus points for the pitch-perfect casting of Sam Elliott. But "The Golden Compass" ultimately feels like a product of compromise. The tone of the film is all over the place, several characters lack depth, the dialogue is spotty and often a bit too on the nose, and then there's the ending - it's a tragedy that, despite having been filmed, the conclusion was both left off the film entirely and out of the special features section of the Blu as well. The novel's ending, if included, would have provided the kind of strong, emotional punch that the rest of the film too often lacked. C'est la vie.
As far as the Blu-ray set itself: impressive package. Iorek's roar will threaten to shatter your windows and the picture is as clear as when I saw it on the big screen some 5 or 6 years ago. The supplementary package is equally great, with in-depth featurettes on everything from Pullman's conception of the story to the casting of Lyra to the special effects wizardry required to create an admirably convincing fantasy world.
A little less compromise and a little more fine-tuning, and "The Golden Compass" may well have been the satisfying blockbuster New Line hoped it would be. Instead, it now sits as one of many post-LOTR misfires with few distinguishing characteristics of its own and a whole lot of potential unrealized.