21 December 2012
With the festive season fast approaching, Mike Pigott considers the snowy Golden Compass models. ...
Of all the diecast character models I’ve looked at over the years, this range has to be the most unique. It is the only series to be based on a fantasy film, the only models to be licensed from New Line Cinema, and the only all-new series made by Corgi during its short-lived ‘Corgi International’ phase.
The movie ‘The Golden Compass’ was based on the novel Northern Lights, the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy by British author Philip Pullman. These stories are set on a parallel world, which is ruled by an authoritarian religious government known as the Magisterium. However, even more bizarre is the fact that on this Earth, peoples’ souls are visible, and take the form of small animals known as ‘daemons’. These daemons are usually perched on their owner’s shoulders and can even have conversations with them.
The plot follows a young orphan girl named Lyra Belacqua (played in the film by Dakota Blue Richards) who lives at Oxford University with her Uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig). After a number of her young friends are kidnapped and her uncle is nearly assassinated, Lyra takes a job as assistant to the elegant but sinister Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) on a trip to the North Pole. For some reason, the college governors entrust Lyra with the world’s only aleithiometer, a kind of golden compass that can measure the truth.
At the North Pole, Lyra discovers that Mrs Coulter is responsible for the kidnapping of her friends and many other children, and is performing experiments on them in a remote medical facility. The girl escapes, joining forces with Texan airman Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot), a band of nomadic pirates, and a race of talking, warrior polar bears. They team up to defeat Mrs Coulter and the Magisterium, destroying the facility, and head off to track down the missing Uncle Asriel.
Of course, there just had to be model vehicles involved somewhere, otherwise you’d just be reading a movie review. There were three diecast models and a range of action figures produced by Corgi International. This company was the result of a rather mismatched three-way merger in 2006 between Corgi, then owned by Zindart of Hong Kong, and two other companies: Cards Inc, a British producer of collectable trading cards, and Master Replicas, a Californian company that produced high-priced film prop replicas, such as ‘Star Trek’ phasers and ‘Star Wars’ light-sabres.
Although Corgi was the senior partner in the deal, Master Replicas quickly gained control, for the purpose of taking over Corgi’s lucrative character licenses. The diecast business was then sold on to Hornby Hobbies, while Corgi International was renamed PopCo – a more appropriate name, but a pretty awful one.
The only all-new diecast range to originate during this era was a set of three fantasy vehicles based on the film version of ‘The Golden Compass’. A fairly bizarre choice of subject matter, these are the only range of fantasy-based (as opposed to science-fiction based) diecast models to date. The three models were various scales, came in different sized boxes, and were all priced differently.
All three were mostly plastic with a few diecast components. Despite this, the quality was extremely good, with a high level of detail and finish. Two came with beautifully painted character figures made of soft plastic in 1/43 scale. They were packaged in boxes similar to Corgi’s American fire engine range, with card bases attached to clear acetate covers.
Magisterium Sky Ferry
The Magisterium Sky Ferry was a huge, Zeppelin-like airship, one of a large fleet owned by the ruling clergy. It was prominently featured in the film when Lyra and Mrs Coulter used it to travel from Oxford down to London. Unlike a normal airship, the people travelled in the balloon section, while the gondola part was used for propulsion. The large glassed area on the nose was actually a viewing area.
The model was extremely accurate and beautifully finished. The central ‘spine’ of the craft, including the rudder and gondola, was diecast, while the rest was plastic. The front half was red with a Magisterium logo embossed on the side, with the rear section in a dull metallic gold. There were no figures included, but it came with a removable stand, and was priced at £14.99.
The carriage is a bizarre type of taxi in which Lyra travelled with Mrs Coulter to her apartment in London. It appears very briefly in the film… in fact, so briefly that if you blink you might miss it. It is a fascinating design, with an Art Nouveau look about it. Like a Victorian coach, it has carriage lights on the sides, and a raised rear seat for a footman.
Again, this is a terrific model. The chassis and wheels are diecast, while the coachwork is mostly plastic. Most impressive are the leadlight windows on the carriage doors, and the atomic power element inside the front wheel (although the front wheel doesn’t roll). Included were some incredibly good hand-painted figures: Mrs Coulter in a fur coat with her orange monkey daemon; and Lyra in a red jacket with her rat-like soul. The Mrs Coulter figurine is so good that it is actually recognisable as Nicole Kidman! It was the smallest and cheapest of the three models, originally priced at £9.99.
Lee Scoresby’s airship
Lee Scoresby’s airship is a weird, Jerry-built craft that appears to be cobbled together from an old boat and a pair of patched-up hot air balloons. It is featured towards the end of the film, when Lyra, Lee and Iorek the polar bear go in search of Asriel.
Visually, this model is probably the least appealing of the three, being painted in shades of grey rather that the brilliant red and gold of the previous two. Still, it’s not a bad model, and comes complete with a Lee Scoresby figure and his jackrabbit daemon, plus a detachable stand. The balloon strings, which are embossed onto clear plastic, are not too convincing, although the sandbags on the gondola are a nice touch. This one retailed for £12.99 when first released.
Unfortunately, despite the high quality of the range, they were a complete sales disaster. Part of this was due to the poor box-office performance of ‘The Golden Compass’… it was a complex, convoluted film without a satisfactory conclusion. While the novels had gained a certain cult status with fans, Northern Lights had only been written in 1995, and had not become a household name along the lines of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, which had both recently been adapted as films. In fact, it looks unlikely that the two sequels will ever be produced.
The film’s lack of popularity naturally had a large impact on sales of the models. But, it seems that the new management at Corgi International seriously misjudged the market. The majority of diecast model collectors are not really interested in weird fictitious vehicles, no matter how loyal to Corgi they might be. And, similarly, fans of fantasy novels and films are probably more interested in action figures and statues rather than diecast vehicles. Not long after their release, these models were selling at heavily discounted prices, with some even reportedly turning up in pound shops.
Well, to be honest, I didn’t like the movie much, either. But, I do like the models, which I think are well made and unique… and given that there won’t be any sequels, they’ll probably remain unique as well.