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3.6 out of 5 stars
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on 20 November 2009
You have to applaud any director for being willing to take on this trilogy. Combining a set of novels which are at once intricately woven and simultaneously panoramic in terms of themes, ideas and even characters into a set of films is hugely ambitious. So how does the first adaption fare?

Well, on the plus side it looks, on the whole, beautiful. Some of the CGI is a little wobbly, particularly around the armoured bears, but the renditions of the icy landscapes and steepled Oxford are beautiful. Equally the casting of the main characters is spot on, with Nicole Kidman perfect as the cold and arch Mrs. Coulter and Sam Elliot as the astronaut (who I forget the name of!). Others clearly disagree but I liked Dakota Blue Richards - she is clearly, particularly in the first book, a cocky and annoying street kid as well as the complex character she develops into and the actress captures both of these.

On the downsides, well, very simply, it is hopelessly fragmented in every sense. The overarching themes and ideas which make the book so beautiful and much more than the sum of its parts are very much lost in the adaptation and renders the film just a set of rather beautiful set pieces. There are so many examples of this, but to pick a few: the sense of the daemons being an integral part of the person is lost despite forced scripting to - it rather feels like their little pet buddy rather than anything else; key religious aspects are largely lost entirely which form the foundation of later stories and which shape the characters themselves; the witches pop up out nowhere, with no history and none of their beautiful back story - they were reduced to simply an airforce attack unit ("Quick, we're being attacked from the sky, call the witches!") - and then disappear equally quickly. I can't tell you how frustrating it is watching a composite story being reduced to nothing more than an incoherent set of random episodes.

I'd also add that whilst the casting, and acting of the main characters is great, the acting of much of the supporting cash is terrible - wooden, cliché ridden and more in line with what you'd expect in a school drama. Such a shame, but to be fair, it would probably have been difficult to achieve, unless you're Peter Jackson of course
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on 10 May 2008
Just to reiterate J.J. Hall's review, I saw this title in a store alongside the original and thought that like with LOTR they'd reinstated lots of scenes that would would enhance the film but were deemed cuttable to get the running time down to an acceptable cinema length. A quick perusal of both boxes showed that both had main features that ran for 108 mins. What you get with this 2-disc edition is just lots of extra features (making ofs, interviews, etc). From the same company that did the excellent LOTR extended editions, this is a real disappointment. This isn't a review of the film (which I still haven't seen to be honest, heard mixed reviews but utterly love the books), just didn't want to see anyone caught out by the "extended" on the cover.
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on 19 June 2008
The high definition transfer to this Blu-ray disc is excellent: rich saturated colours and awesome levels of detail. Sound quality is equally good and although I don't have the ability to play the uncompressed DTS HD soundtrack the dynamic rangeis apparent even in standard stereo. In this respect it's one of the best Blu-ray discs I've seen so far.

That was the good news (and reason for the 3 stars); if only the conversion of book to movie had been even remotely as good. The special effects are very good and Lyra's Oxford is well realised; Mrs Coulter is also subtly played by the excellent Nicole Kidman and...unfortunately that's about as far as I can go with compliments.

The strengths of the book(s) are Philip Pullman's expert story-telling, allied to a complex - but accessible - plot and wonderful characters.
Of course condensing everything from the book to a 2 hour film would be impossible but what we are presented with is a series of action sequences linked by ham-fisted exposition. For example, the episode with Billy Costa (who has merged characters with Tony Macarios), once found separated from his Ratter, should emphasise the relationship between human and daemon and build the requisite tension to what is happening at Bolvangar but the opportunity is wasted. Then there is the pointless re-naming of Iofur Raknison to 'Ragnar' (one can just imagine the Focus Group brainstorming a generic scandinavian name: "Ooh I know, how about Ernest Borgnine's name in The Vikings!") and the weakening of Iorek Byrnison (why not rename him too: Erik the Ice Bear, anyone?) by having him (1) expelled from Svalbard as a coward and (2) almost killed and only just saved by Lee Scoresby. Iorek's character is supposed to be the practically indestructible rock that underpins Lyra's (and, later, Will's) resolve for what follows. Those are just 2 examples of many.

The removal of the true ending of the book from the film and the general watering down of the religious undertone sums up what many fans of the book feared would happen: Hollywood has chickened out (again). The bar for intelligent fantasy book transfers to film has been raised by Peter Jackson, and this movie falls woefully short of that level.

The BBC Cover to Cover talking book, read by Philip Pullman with a cast providing the dialogue, is vastly superior to the BBC Radio dramatisation (I've got both) but even the latter is better than the film. If you haven't read the books, I encourage you to do so - the film is passable in a Dark Crystal/Hawk the Slayer action-fantasy genre but the books have so much more depth.
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VINE VOICEon 5 June 2008
This is certainly a beautiful looking movie, and looks wonderful on blu-ray, no doubts there. However as an adaptation of Philip Pullman's excellent novel it falls rather short. Much of the commentary of the terrible evils of religion and their attacks on freedom, science, and knowledge, and specifically the catholic church have been removed or dulled hugely, changing the story from a multi faceted and complex tale into a simple adventure yarn.

Also, and this is particularly agregious, the final chapter was completely omitted, robbing the story of any closure at all, and given how this performed in the US box office, thanks to religious nut cases running a smear campaign against it I doubt the two sequels will ever get made.

My advice - read the books instead.
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on 1 May 2008
This film has been not just panned, but viciously berated. No wonder it attracted such luke-warm success. I went dreading it, as His Dark Materials was one of those life-changing books in my life. Imagine my pleasure when I found the film incredibly well done. I just do not know what the critics were carping about. As with the Harry Potter films, there had to be HUGE compromises made to the two-hour limitation of a film, but The Golden Compass FAR OUTDID any of the Harry Potters in condensing a complex and hefty book into a comprehendible 2 hour film. I thought the short cuts and abridgments they did with the Golden Compass were entirely in keeping with and reverential to the book---it was brilliantly done. Sure, there are always differences in interpretations of individual characters on the screen (Craige is far too warm, Kidman should be dark, not blonde...) but the rest of the characters/actors were positively spot on, and Daniel Craig and Kidman did such excellent jobs otherwise capturing the essence of the characters in the minute periods of time they had, that you quickly lent them the benefit of the doubt for starting from a slightly different place than the book. Sure, thousands of details, and side stories were sacrificed to the film's abridgment, and sure, some stories were merged to help condense the story, but even these were masterfully done and retained the spirit of the story.
Hey! A two hour film can NEVER compete with a 600 page book. But it CAN capture some of the magic of a story and portray it with integrity. This film is a first rate film of a remarkable book. I, for one, cannot WAIT for the next two installments. Bravo.
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on 11 August 2008
First I must point out that before I saw this film I had already read, and hugely enjoyed, the original book, so I approached this film with a mixture of high hopes as well as concern about how Hollywood would treat Philip Pullman's work. To my relief, I can report that the transition to the big screen was, give or take a few compromises, a success.

The 'alternative Earth' world that Philip Pullman has superbly conceptualised is visually re-created in this film very convincingly. The weirdly futuristic yet slightly Victorian technology is conveyed very well via some impressive CG-enhanced cinematography and the daemons that accompany every human are also very realistic and show that no expense has been spared in reproducing this strange world. The cast is also top notch. Daniel Craig makes a great Lord Asriel, mixing authority and intelligence with a subtle charm. Nicole Kidman is also wonderful playing the sinister Mrs Coulter, flicking effortlessly between affability and damn right scariness. The exiled bear prince Iorek Byrnison is also very well portrayed, the CG rendering is top notch and, being voiced over by Ian McKellen, gives the character the right amount of gravitas.

Where the film works well is that it makes Pullman's story very accessible to anyone who hasn't read the book. In his book Pullman crams in an incredible amount of ideas, some of which are quite mysterious and don't get fully explained until later on in the book. Therefore the film makers chose to simplify some of these intricacies to make them more 'movie friendly'. So, for instance, the whole concept of what a daemon is gets explained very early on in the film so the viewer doesn't sit wondering why everyone walks around with their own talking animal. This is in contrast to the book, where deamons just exist, no simple explanation is given as to why people have these animals, and it's only through reading the whole book that you begin to understand the mysteries of these enigmatic creatures.

I know many Pullman fans have criticised the film's simplification of many of Pullman's ideas as dumbing down, but I think this is a little unfair. Without doubt some of the more involved subplots are only touched on in this film, giving the impression that some of it was a little rushed as the film makers tried to cram as much of the book as they could into a 2 hour film. For instance, the Bear King's infatuation with being human, as well as his usurping of Iorek, has far more significance and depth in the book than it does in this film. Also, in the film, the role of the Witches is quite understated and they're portrayed almost like 'guns for hire' to help Lyra and the Gyptians when needed. In the book, however, they have a very profound involvement in the story and very much hold the balance of power in the unfolding events.

But the biggest compromise is without doubt the point at which the film ends. I will not give anything away, other than to say the film ends at about three quarters of the way through the book. So the film gets denied the book's original climactic ending, and kind of just fizzles out. It really isn't a proper ending and I feel this definitely could have been handled better.

But generally the compromises do not detract from the fact that this film is very enjoyable and a great introduction to the fascinating world that Phillip Pullman has created. Admittedly this adaptation isn't perfect and many of the book's subtleties and intricacies have been lost. But as a fan of the book I'm just pleased such a wonderful story has been given the Hollywood treatment and allowed a whole new audience to discover its delights.
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Coming to The Golden Compass cold without having read the books, it's easy to understand why this was met with relative indifference by the unconverted. It's also easy to see why the fans of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy were so disappointed - for all the money and spectacular design and special effects lavished on it, this really does look like the studio destroyed the film in an attempt to make it into The Lord of the Lion, The Ring and The Potter. The film hits plot points but never lingers long enough for scenes or characters to really gain weight or play as well as they should because it's just in too damn much of a hurry. Even the score by the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat falls into the trap of following an all too identifiable temp track of other scores at times despite the odd burst of originality or genuine lyricism. A big part of the problem seems to be that this was a studio-led project rather than a film-maker driven one: with no Peter Jackson to drive his vision through and the project going from Chris Weitz to Anand Tucker to Tom Stoppard and back to Weitz it's no surprise it's so diluted. What is surprising is just how incomplete it feels: it literally stops just as the story is beginning in a way I haven't seen since Captain From Castille, leaving the film feeling like either a trailer or a TV pilot.

What's so much worse in the case is that they actually shot the ending and dumped a huge amount of footage (much in the film's trailer and containing most of Daniel Craig's scenes) and rearranged the order of the second half of the film in an attempt to give it a happier climax, purely for marketing concerns and to boost the chances of a sequel that will now never come. From what has leaked its way onto YouTube, it's easy to see why the marketing and moneymen had second thoughts, but if they'd had the guts to go with the original ending it would have given the film a real kick - it's genuinely shocking stuff, especially for a big-budget fantasy - but also would have made the religion versus science argument less one-sided with its conclusion that pure science is just as much an evil as intolerant religion and there are fanatics of all hues.

The extras on this 2-disc set are fairly comprehensive, but it's significant that there are no deleted scenes (New Line initially talked about using the ending as the opening for the proposed followup). Hopefully one day there'll be a director's cut (despite the misleading packaging, this certainly isn't it): on this evidence, despite several missteps Weitz wasn't so guilty of diluting the source material as the film makes it look and it'd be a huge improvement. As it stands it has its moments but feels at times like you're watching a trailer rather than a finished film.
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on 24 October 2008
I read 'His Dark Materials' a couple of years before the film hit our screens, it is one of my favorite novels of all time and was literaly a life changing experience reading it, when I first heard about a movie adaptation I was very excited...and I waited in anticipation for this for what seemed like ages, I was expecting a 12 or 12a rating for this movie and I was a little shocked when I saw it has a 'PG' rating......this was what first put doubts in my head. Then I saw the running time, after the 'epic' Lord of the Rings I was expecting at least a 200 min film for the Golden Compass.....on release I went to the Cinema not expecting much for these reasons alone, what can I say? 'Average' is the word that springs to mind, it wasn't terrible, just average.. which considering it's based on one of the greatest books ever written is a shame. After watching it really does feel like you've only seen the beggining of the film, if you want a similar experience pick up any DVD watch the first 20 mins and eject it, that's what it feels like...why not make the film longer and tell a bit more of the story?

As an adult I never felt like I was reading a children's book, the same can't be said for this film, it's a children's film and make no mistake about it. Very dissapointing, very average.....and I'm also a little angry that they've turned something as wonderful as 'His Dark Materials' into DVD bargain bin fodder.

I really think it's going to take one of the big Japanese animation companies to pick this up and do a screen version that does the books justice. After watching 'Spirited Away' all I can say is Hayao Miyazaki help us please!!! I dare anyone to say that wouldn't be amazing.....
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on 16 July 2009
I enjoyed this film which was surprisingly faithful to the original novel (Northern Lights, Philip Pullman), even though much of the suspense-laden narrative had to be discarded. Some splendid performances too, especially Nicole Kidman as the chillingly evil Mrs Coulter, Ian McKellen's voice-over as the Armoured Bear, and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as a thoroughly believable stroppy, independent-minded pre-adolescent Lyra. Perhaps it helped to have read the book? I don't know, but would have expected this film to have been more popular than I understand it has been so far. Definitely worth watching, and I hope the producers plan to make the sequels.
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on 12 September 2014
This review is of the Bluray Extended 2 disc.

There are no additional scenes. It's the theatrical release with some extras, making of etc.The Dark Materials trilogy is a major work of modern fiction and it is hard to see how such a beautifully crafted novel could ever really be made into a movie that reflects the subtle artistry that Pullman gave it. Having said that, this sanitised adventure version is not that bad.
Cast is very good, especially the delightful Dakota who almost steps our of the pages of the novel - at least visually.
It is a crappy ending like they'd run out of money or were so sure that they were creating the first instalment of a franchise.
Weitsz seems sincere as the writer / director and so it may be that the studio pulled a fast one on him with regard to this. Though I would have thought a lover of the books would fight for the integrity of his adaptation.
All in all it is a nice looking film, well acted and an enjoyable watch - unless you are a Pullman die-hard, in which case it wil be a species of torture.
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