The disc is given a theatrically correct widescreen 2.35:1 aspect, 1080p and encoded with the VC-1 codec. On the whole this is a very pleasing picture even if it doesn't quite have the 'wow' factor I really wanted to see.
Being such a new film the original print is absolutely pristine, crystal clear of any dirt or blemishes and also free from grain. This bodes well for the detail level which has some wonderful examples of clarity. Take all the backdrops for example, either Oxford, London or the wild snow lands all come across is post card perfect; of course the former are digitally enhanced, but the latter are real and look just as glossy. This is where the picture really shines. Close up detail is also very good, take a look at the interiors, detail on the general clutter or the pictures on the wall and the glorious painted ceiling in Oxford; some gems here. Very close up does tend towards the soft a touch, skin detail and clothing weaves don't quite have that pin point clarity that one comes to expect with reference though I suspect this has more to do with the digital colour manipulation than any transfer problems.
Talking of which colour is bold and rich and at times drips from the screen. The oranges and reds towards the beginning of the film contrast beautifully with the blues and whites of the north, all are solid and thick. The film has extensive post digital colouring, this helps to give the colours strength at the expense of looking purely natural. For the most part this does not matter at all, except when it comes to skin tones, and even then there has to be a particular problem; unfortunately it is exhibited a little here, skin tones do tend a little brown in places giving a very unnatural tone. Not overtly distracting but enough to warrant mentioning.
Brightness is set to give some decent enough black, digital colouring notwithstanding. Blacks do hold some good shadow detail but do pick up a little on the hue of the over all picture, but it is fitting so not distraction. Contrast is set to give some lovely whites; this is especially true of the snow, which is wonderfully graided, not boosting or loss, exceptional.
With no digital compression problems and only the faintest whiff of edge enhancement (and then only towards the beginning) this is a good solid picture, just shy of reference due to some niggling inconsistencies but thoroughly deserving of its score.
Just the one track to choose from; an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, which all sounds very grand, but is, rather disappointingly, a missed opportunity. The problem is a lack of any real substantial surround sound; it is all rather un-immersive. Oh the surround speakers are used, but not to the degree where you are placed in the centre of the action excepting a few (obvious) scenes. When the surrounds do spring to life the effect is immediate, the battle scenes show them off to their fullest extent, both the Bears fight and the ending stand off. Here there are the usual crash, bang, wallop you would expect with hand to hand combat. Shouts, weapon fire, animal grunts, the swooping of the witches all conspire to produce a decent enough sound stage.
Alexandre Desplat's score is given full reign of the speakers, is perhaps the best usage and this considerably helps the fill out the sound stage. However at times it comes across as extremely bombastic, flattening everything in its path, a little more ease on the mix would have provided a smoother listen. There is a good range with plenty of bass to hold everything together. Dialogue sounds very natural though there is very little directionality given. A decent amount of LF effects though, the thumping of Iorek Byrnison as he gallops over the snow, the roaring of the ice bears, the arrival of vehicles, gun shots all have the sub rumbling away.
I feel as though I'm painting a rather bleak picture with the sound; it is not after all a bad track; there is plenty going on, even if surround effects are sometimes lost; turning the volume up will yield some terrific results but the mix itself a little inconsistent.
Disc one plays host to and Audio commentary with director Chris Weitz and the Blu-ray exclusive Visually enhanced commentary. The audio portion of these two is exactly the same (barring the intro) so why anyone would go for the audio option and not the visually enhanced version is a mystery, so I'm not going to break convention. As commentaries go this one is pretty good, particularly since it is by just the one voice. Weitz certainly knows his stuff, he talks at length about everything you see on screen from casting, working with the actors through to visual effects and locations. There is hardly a pause for breath and he constantly bombards you with facts, information and anecdotes. This is ably illustrated with small pop up videos containing such delights as behind the scenes filming, green screen work, animatics, design pictures and if nothing else is available Weitz himself talking to camera. It's pretty good and worth a listen/watch if just to hear his alterations to the book and the reasons behind them (speed mostly).
Disc two holds a whole host of making of featurettes that thankfully come with a play all function and when doing so has a run time of a mammoth two hours forty eight minutes. It is set out in three major chapter titles and further sub divided into featurette titles, a list of which is on the specification page. When using play all there is a very natural flow and it follows the making of the film right from an extensive interview with Pullman at the beginning which sets the tone, right through adapting the story, casting, preproduction, production and post production. Using a combination of interviews with everyone concerned with the project recorded both at the time the film was being made and post its completion, plus a huge amount of behind the scenes material. It is put together much like Pete Jackson's Lord of the Rings making of's, completely exhaustive and thoroughly informative with enthusiasm from all concerned; it is rich and rewarding and there is so much to learn from it. Best thing? The whole documentary is in 1080 HD with DTS surround sound and fully subtitled. This is as comprehensive a making of as ever I've seen, not once does it become tedious, an engaging watch, even if ultimately the film itself is not quite up to par, at least everyone involved with it gave it there all.
Next up there is a picture gallery, again split into various chapters that you can either manually flick through or set up a slide show; not as many pictures as you might think from what must have had an extraordinary amount of artwork generated for the film, however what is there looks fabulous in HD.
The Dark Materials trilogy is a triumph of modern writing, encompassing so many ideas both theological and physical, on top of what is a terrific story. Done right it would make a compelling and horrific film, dark, moody and above all thought provoking. Unfortunately this first film fails on all those fronts. In removing some of the central themes Weitz has provided us with a simplified, sanitised vision and whilst it may work on a pure popcorn level, it does after all hit most of the right notes, it doesn't manage the greatness it so richly deserves. I, like the cinema going public before me, am under whelmed and disappointed.
As a Blu-ray package New Line have pulled out all the stops to provide an excellent package that, like the film, just stops short of greatness; an excellent extras package spread over two discs and all in HD is slightly let down but a decent enough, if not excellent picture and sound transfer.
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