By Matthew Sorrento | May 27, 2008

“The Golden Compass” came and went in a flash last winter, and as it comes to DVD, we remember the film’s pre-theatrical gossip better than the film itself. Aside from the expected moaning from Catholic groups, many potential viewers scoffed at the film’s trailers, which to them promised nothing but an attempt to lure LOTR/Potter-heads into a new franchise. When the first notices of “Compass” appeared, their fears seemed to be confirmed. A finale that promised parts two and three sure feels more exploitive than seducing. The critics weren’t happy either: on NPR’s Fresh Air, New York Magazine’s David Edelstein called the film “incoherent” with sheer contempt. Our own Pete Vonder Haar was so let down by “Compass” that his own Libby Gelman-Waxner had to step in for him. (Glad auntie’s willing to help. I wonder if she’ll drop in again for “Wall-E”?)

Perhaps the visual samplings in “Compass’s” theatrical trailers were too much to follow. Viewed in retrospect (and on the small screen), the film remains visually rich but dense, stuffed with exposition to implement as much of its source material – the first entry in “The Northern Lights” trilogy, by Philip Pullman – as possible. It needs as much to present the film’s parallel universe, where everyone is accompanied by an externalized soul (called a “daemon”) in the form of an animal, like a familiar. As the daemons are extensions of the characters, each feels the other’s emotions and, for the purpose of the story, pain – though passion is never developed. (Imagine Nicole Kidman acting out the frolicking of the animal kingdom. Talk about golden.)

There’s also a newly discovered substance called “Dust” channeling down from the sky. Its existence is suppressed by the authorities, while it is ready to inspire rebellion in others. And this it what jumpstarts Lyra (Deep Blue Something – I mean, Dakota Blue Richards) on her journey to reveal the truth, as she’s in possession of a truth-meter, the object of the film’s title. It reveals mysteries to her like transcendental inspiration, and is one of many elements that will have young viewers turning to their parents in confusion.

Even with all its invention, “The Golden Compass” doesn’t come alive until past the film’s midpoint. Lyra realizes that she needs a guide/protector for her journey, and finds one in a white bear. This bear, Iorek (voiced by a grandiose Ian McCellan), is down on his luck, having lost his battle armor and now serving as a drunken laborer. But when her call to adventure revives him, he brings the inspiration that this fantasy needs. He serves as a transporter on which she rides – much like a Luck Dragon and numerous other beasts from the fantasy tradition (though Iorek is always grounded). Later, in a subplot, he serves up what must be one of the best fight scenes of last year, when he returns to his clan to reclaim his crown. Roles reverse when Lyra’s cunning assists him – she makes up a convoluted lie to have his nemesis agree to the one-on-one battle – but Iorek’s combat is the film’s first truly exciting moment, and it makes the narrative credible, while the scene lasts.

The rest of “Compass” stays close to convention. A final battle promises grandeur, but yields a rescue like the timely appearance of the cavalry in a Fordian western. (At least the filmmakers know they are guilty – one rescuer is a six-shooting jockey of an air stagecoach, played by the usually gruff Sam Elliott.) The rescue would pass if we weren’t soon hit over the head with empty setups at the conclusion. So much for a sequel – with the disappointing profits, the ragtag part one may be the first and last, according to numerous sources.

While New Line has released a loaded two-disc set (which, as of yet, has transcended my grasp), the single-disc edition lacks any extras. With a film delivering this little, we need a little more for our money.

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