The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is the American title of the first novel in a set of three by Phillip Pullman.  The trilogy is called His Dark Materials, and the three books detail the journey of the young girl Lyra in her quest to figure out just what the Hell is going on.  And I mean that quite literally.

I think the books as a whole are best described as the anit-Narnia, as Lyra and many of the other characters in the books deconstruct and destroy organized religion.  And it's not nearly as subtle as the pro-religion theme of Narnia, if that tells you anything.

I loved the books, and am very much looking forward to the film.  This first movie can be done without it appearing to be TOO controversial though, as it's really books two and three that spice things up.  If they ever get made, I'll be truly shocked.

What the books really have going for them in terms of the transition to film is some truly amazing worlds and characters.  Just like the whole theme, the places and characters that Lyra comes in contact with become more and more interesting as the books go along.

Popco, the folks that brought you the nifty 3 3/4" figures for Harry Potter (if you don't live in the U.S. anyway), have set out to do the same for this first film.  The full series 1 set of figures have hit Toys R Us already, and I'm betting they will show up at other retailers soon.

The first series includes 8 different characters - Lyra, Mrs. Coulter (and she's even blonde!), Lee Scorsby, Lord Asriel, Serifina Pekkala, John Faa, Tony Costa, and a Tartar Solider (this movie's version of a Stormtrooper). If you're a completist, there are actually two versions of the Tartar, distinguished predominately by their head sculpt.

These guys are six bucks a pop at TRU right now, and as mentioned earlier, are a 3 3/4" scale.

BTW, I swore awhile ago that I wouldn't be doing another huge review like this.  In fact, it's when I covered the full first set of Harry Potter figures from Popco when I made that promise.  The irony is not lost on me that Popco managed to cause me to break the promise.

Packaging - ***1/2
Even though Popco is working with small cardbacks, and multi-lingual requirements, they manage to get personalized information on the back for each character, info on the accessories, and some excellent graphics.  The packages aren't oversized, so there's little waste, and they show off the figures nicely.

Now, they aren't collector friendly by any stretch of the imagination, but for mass market toys, these are about as good as you can get.

Sculpting - Mrs. Coulter ****; Lee, Tartars, Faa, Costa, Serefina ***1/2;  Lord Asriel ***; Lyra **1/2; 
This is about as wide a range as you can get, but I gotta say that the actual likenesses are a bit all over the board.  Still, this is one of the nicest new movie related lines in YEARS, and I like it even better than their previous Harry Potter work.

The best in this category is Mrs. Coulter.  Now, don't let anyone tell you that she's based on that other blonde Ann - Pullman created this character over 12 years ago.  And he always pictured Nicole Kidman playing her.

The head sculpt looks very, very much like Ms. Kidman, even more so in person than close up photos.  The hair and clothing have extremely nice detail work, particularly for this scale.  I had the most trouble getting her to stand, but once you get the hang of it, it works just fine.

One of the reasons I'm so impressed by the Kidman sculpt is that she's a very pretty woman, without having any features that make for an easy caricature.  She's the kind of person that would be difficult to capture in a much larger scale, and yet she's recognizable in this small figure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Lyra.  The body work is good, right up there with the rest of the line.  But I think the match to Dakota Blue Richards, starring in her first feature film.  There's a part of this that's due to weaker paint as well, but separating the two out is quite tough in such a small figure.

Everyone else falls in the middle.  Lee Scorsby is a solid version of Elliot, but on close up loses a little bit.  Still, you'll recognize him immediately, which is more than can be said for most movie related figures these days.  

I have no idea if the two Tartars look like any of the actual Tartars in the movie (although they due resemble the two shown on the package), but the detail work is some of the best of the line.  The texturing on the costume looks great, and while the outfits aren't the most colorful, they are nice and foreboding.

The two head sculpts are clearly different, but you won't notice until careful inspection that the hand sculpts are different as well.  This is to allow one to work better with certain accessories, and the other to work better with others.

Serafina is very pretty, and is a very good match to Eva Green.  She also is the only one that has soft goods as part of her clothes, with the flowing material of her gown.  She also has the uniquely sculpted legs that give her a terrific leg pose that actually works under all those layers.

Daniel Craig doesn't jump out at me quite as much in the Asriel sculpt.  It's solid work, but he isn't nearly as instantly recognizable as some of the other actors.  I love the sculpted pose of the legs though, and the detail work on the heavy coat is great.

The line rounds out with John Faa and Tony Costa, two of the Gyptians that assist Lyra in her quest.  Again, til I actually see the film, I can't be sure if these look perfectly accurate to the character (I only have a couple stills to use to compare), but based on the actors and what I've seen, they are extremely well done.  There is less than an ideal amount of articulation here, and so the sculpted poses are fairly critical.  They decided to give all the characters a unique look, and that helps keep the entire line more interesting when posed together.

All the figures have good hand sculpts too, allowing them to work quite well with the various accessories.  In fact, there were no 'fluff' accessories - you know the kind, the ones that they give you to make you feel like you're getting extra goodies, but you can't actually use with the figure.

All nine of the figures also stand well on their own, even the ones like Serfina who have tiny feet.  Serefina has her right foot sculpted so she stands on the ball of the foot, a tricky proposition even in a 7" scale.  But it actually works quite well here, and I had no trouble getting her to stand on her own. 

One last note on the sculpt - the scale and proportion here is also extremely good.  Line them all up together, and you get enough variety to make them interesting, and the size of the kids to adults is realistic and appropriate.  Not all the guys are the same exact height, and neither are the women.  Even better, these guys fit in perfectly with Star Wars or the Popco Harry Potter stuff.

Paint - Mrs. Coulter, Asriel, Serefina, Tartars, Faa, and Costa ***1/2; Lee ***; Lyra **1/2;
Considering that these are mass market toys, the paint ops are extremely clean.  It's also important to note that there's a ton of color here, making it critical that cut lines be clean and washes and dry brushing have to be just right.

That's the case for almost every figure.  Mrs. Coulter, Asriel, Serefina, John Faa, and Tony Costa all have very clean work, with only a little slop here and there.  The pattern on Coulter's coat actually looks hand applied (although I doubt that), and yet it's very realistic and even.  Some of the costumes are extremely colorful, like Faa, Serefina and even Costa, and all the lines are cut sharp and clean.

Almost all the figures have clean face work too, with straight eyes, even eyebrows, and sharp hair lines.  The only exception to all this perfection is Lyra, who's hair line is sloppy, and whose face paint does nothing to help add any definition or sharpness to her face.  She's the one disappointment in the overall line.

The only other complaint is around the dry brushing on some of the hair.  This is a minor complaint, but the gray hair on Lee and the gold hair of the monkey leave me a bit cold.  I think the work on the fur coats is much better, but in these two instances it seems too heavy.

There were the occasional spot here and there, but overall the paint work is quite impressive, and once again, I think the work is even better than what we've seen with their Harry Potter line.

Articulation - Lyra ***1/2;  the rest ***
The only area that I'm disappointed with on this series is the articulation.  They don't hold up well when compared to recent Star Wars figures here, although they are much better than what we got with that line a decade ago.

Let's start with the Tartars, since both are identical.  They have cut necks, cut shoulders, cut elbows, cut waist, and T hips.  It allows you to get them in their sculpted pose and stay standing, but only the arms have any real chance for personalization.  Even there, your choices are limited.  

Lee has a cut neck, cut shoulders, cut elbows, cut waist T hips as well.  The holster on his left side (which can hold his gun) limits the usefulness of that hip joint though.

John Faa mirrors this articulation, but the long coat makes the hips and waist pretty useless, and the long hair rules out much neck movement.  His arms have been sculpted to give him a bit of the 'hands on his hips' look, or to hold his gun.

Tony Costa has the same articulation, but again the long coat takes away from the hips and waist, and the arms are very much posed for holding the bow.  Other poses are look ungainly and odd.

Lord Asriel - articulation - same.  And like previous figures, he's got that same long coat issue.  I mentioned how I liked the posed leg sculpt though (very natural in appearance), and he does have a couple good poses in him.

Now, on to the ladies.  Mrs. Coulter and Serafina match the men in number of joints, although Serafina has a V joint for the hips rather than a T.  In reality, some of the other figures might as well, since many have long clothes covering the joint and making it tough to see.  Mrs. Coulter's heavy long coat makes her the least articulated of the bunch, at least in terms of useful joints.

Finally, there's Lyra.  She's the smallest figure of the bunch, and has the same style of long coat (much of the movie will be in a very cold North), but oddly enough, is the most articulated of the bunch.  She has the cut neck, cut shoulders, cut elbows, cut waist (which is actually cut through the jacket, so that it works cleanly), but adds some key joints.  There are cut wrists, and cut knees, along with peg/disc hips that allow the legs to move forward and backward, as well as way out to the side.  The sides of the jacket are cut, so the legs can take deep stances.

The oddest thing here isn't the lack of pin elbows or knees, but the lack of cut wrists.  Other than Lyra, I don't think any of the figures have them (although a couple felt like you *might* be able to twist them  - I wouldn't recommend it though), and these are pretty key joints.  Also, the necks really needed to be ball joints, but that's an omission I can live with. 

The articulation of the line overall isn't God awful, but the clothing and hair often negates much of the usefulness.   If you compare this to some of the more recent Star Wars figures, you'll see that they come up a bit lacking, but even then they're still above what seems to be the norm these days.

Accessories - Lyra ****;  Asriel, Costa ***1/2; Tartars, Lee, Serefina, Faa ***; Coulter **1/2
Another of those categories where things are pretty widely ranged.  I think you'll see why in a minute.

One of the things you'll learn in the film is that everyone has 'daemons'.  Actually, there's some characters in the next two books that don't, and the bears (who I picked up and will review soon) don't.  But all of these nine have daemons, animals that are permanently part of them.

Coulter only comes with her daemon, the golden monkey.  This character is a very, very evil presence in the film, and the sculpted monkey doesn't really give off that same vibe.  He's a bit disappointing, although the scale is good and he stands fine on his own.

Lyra gets to be on the top end of this category, as she's loaded with goodies!  There's her bag, which can easily be removed, and not one but TWO versions of Pantalaimon, her daemon.  It comes in its ermine shape, and in its cat shape, both well sculpted considering the itty bitty size.

She also comes with an extra set of hands that are sculpted to hold the included nifty little aletheometer.  It doesn't open, but I wasn't surprised.  The hands can be a bit tricky to get on and off, at least the first time, because the posts are fairly soft, so take care not to rip them.

Lord Asriel has a hand gun, his leopard daemon, and his goggles.  They come packed around his neck, but they fit nicely and look terrific.  Harry's glasses always end up too big, but these goggles are very well scaled.

John Faa only has two accessories, his crow daemon and his handgun.  Both look good though, and the gun fits nicely in his hand.

The Tartars have three accessories, but I graded them more like two since all three accessories are identical re-used items.  They have a rifle, a handgun, and their large wolf daemon.  One of the Tartars is sculpted to hold the rifle better, while the other has a slightly different hand sculpt to better hold the hand gun.

Lee only has his handgun and his rabbit daemon.  I was a bit disappointed that he didn't have something else, but that's probably because the character was so cool in the second book.  It's pretty obvious that New Line would really, really like to make all three films, since several of these characters - like Lee and Serefina - have such larger parts in the later books and were cast with higher profile actors.

Serefina and Costa are armed as archers.  She has just an arrow and her bow, and no daemon.  As I recall, it was a goose, and I was surprised we didn't get it.  However, it's possible we don't meet her daemon til the second film - my memory isn't THAT good.

What's cool is that she can actually hold the bow and arrow in such a way that it looks good!  The pre-posed arm sculpt allows for this, even with the limited articulation.

Likewise, Tony can hold his bow and arrow in a very convincing pose.  The arms are a little too far over to one side, but it's not bad, and it took less time to get him in the pose than some sixth scale figures.  Tony also has his daemon, the warthog, and a handgun, perhaps the only 'fluff' accessory of the bunch.  You probably could get him to hold it in his right hand though if you tried hard enough.  Finally, the thin weapon in the front of his belt is actually removable.  I'm betting I should remember what this is for (or perhaps it's just something specific to the film), but you've got me.

One of the coolest things about all the handguns is that five of the six are actually unique sculpts!  Of course, the two Tartars have the same gun, but all the other guys are very different, unique to their character.  They did the same thing with the wands in the Potter line up, and it's that kind of excellent attention to detail that will set this line apart.

Fun Factor - ***1/2
I wish these sported a bit more useful articulation - if they did, they'd be four star figures in this category.  They really are great toys, and if kids love the film these would be a fantastic choice for their Christmas gifts.

The odd thing here is that the film is rated PG-13.  Of course, so was Spider-man and they hit the kids with a ton of toys.  But even kids that didn't see the Spider-man movie, sure as Hell knew who he was, as he had a built in audience.  These characters are only going to appeal to kids that actually see a movie that they may not get to see - it's quite a gamble.

Value - ***1/2
Wow - just six bucks!  I haven't bought many six dollar action figures this year.  The Star Wars line from Hasbro has fluctuated up and down, and I think you can find them for about six bucks these days at some retailers, but to get a NEW line, based on a NEW movie...and one that isn't a cheap license I'm sure...and still do it for just six books is quite impressive.

The sculpting is good, the paint well above average, and there are plenty of accessories.  I have to say that I expected them to be $7 - $8 each, and was very happy (and more inclinded to finish the line) when I saw they were just six.

Things to Watch Out For - 
The only issue I noticed was those soft pegs on Lyra's swappable hands.  Oh, you're likely to loose more than a few of these small accessories, but that's the price of admission.

Overall - Mrs. Coulter, Tartars, Faa, Costa, Asriel ***1/2; Lee, Lyra, Serefina ***
It's so rare to get a good movie line any more, let alone a great one.  I'm not quite ready to declare this a 'great' line, but it's a damn sight better than any movie line (with the possible exception of the Transformers stuff...possibly...and of course Star Wars) we've gotten in years.

The sculpts are good to great, and the paint work is generally well above average for a mass market 3 3/4" line.  There's a few misses here and there - including poor Lyra's face - but overall the work is great.

The added accessories are terrific as well, with lots of cool daemons to round things out.  The fact that all the accessories (almost) are useful is a big plus too.

I have a hard time imaging that this line is going to do well.  I hope I'm wrong, because the quality and play value are extremely high, but parents and kids aren't going to have much time between the release of the film next week and Christmas day.  That means they won't have much time to get this little guys on the wish list, even if they do enjoy the movie.

And will the movie hit it off?  There's not many reviews yet, but what there has been is largely positive.  There were a lot of screenings this weekend, so we'll hear quite a bit more this week.  I'm tremendously hopeful that the film will be one to share with my children.  It has all the elements to be a terrific tale, and besides, how can you go wrong with talking polar bears that wear armor?

Score Recap:
Packaging - ***1/2
Sculpt - Mrs. Coulter ****; Lee, Tartars, Faa, Costa ***1/2;  Serefina, Lord Asriel ***; Lyra **1/2
Paint - Mrs. Coulter, Asriel, Serefina, Tartars, Faa, and Costa ***1/2; Lee ***; Lyra **1/2;
Articulation - Lyra ***1/2;  the rest ***
Accessories - Lyra ****;  Asriel, Costa ***1/2; Tartars, Lee, Serefina, Faa ***; Coulter **1/2
Fun Factor - ***1/2
Value - ***1/2
Overall - Mrs. Coulter, Tartars, Faa, Costa, Asriel ***1/2; Lee, Lyra, Serefina ***

Where to Buy -
I picked up this set at Toys R Us, and I expect we'll see them at other large retailers.  My sponsors aren't carrying them, but some other goodies include:

- Alter Ego has the Tonner dolls, if you're into those.

- Related Links -
There isn't any other Golden Compass reviews yet, but check out Popco's work on Harry Potter!


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Figure from the collection of Michael Crawford.

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