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Chronicles of Narnia, The: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 09 December 2005
The first volume of C.S. Lewis’ series of tales about Narnia, the land he imagined, has been filmed for television several times in England, most recently in 1988, when it was followed by feature-length adaptations of other Narnia books But though the most recent set was well-regarded by critics and Lewis fans, it certainly wasn’t made on the colossal scale of this elaborate rendition of the beloved children’s novel.

Although the movie inadvertently suggests Narnia covers only a few hundred acres, they’re full of canyons, vast rivers, sea shores and near-deert expanses where the big-scale battle of the climax is fought. Narnia is populated with an eye-popping array of creatures lifted from mythology (largely Greek) and other legends, plus lots of animals. I amused myself by imagining that at one point near the end, director Andrew Adamson told hims cameraman to prepare for the usual charging-centaur-and-rhinoceros shot.

Fans of the novel—and they are legion—are more likely to be delighted by the film than those who never read it. It’s both faithful to and respectful of the source, even including the Christian imagery that Lewis worked into most of his fiction. (Here, the Christ figure is a noble talking lion.) There are many wonders to be seen, laced with memorable small details: upon entering his cave from a snowy landscape, a faun briefly stomps his hooves to shake off the snow. The evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) is impressively regal and threatening, as icy as you could want, with piercing eyes and a chariot drawn by polar bears.

But it’s also a children’s story, and as limited as many are. The focus is on the four human children of the Pevensie family who find their way into Narnia. Even though they learn that a prophecy says they’re destined to rule the land, they’re mostly concerned with issues between themselves, the kind of troubles any set of siblings might have; as usual, a children’s story has to be useful and instructive.

Characterizations are thin and often almost non-existent; there are no big quests to go on, no one struggles with divided loyalties or uncertain convictions; except that youngest brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) undergoes a bit of wising up, he hadn’t done anything actually wrong in the first place, and was instead the victim of the White Witch’s treachery. A companion declared “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to be “Lord of the Rings lite,” and that’s not far off. Shot like Peter Jackson’s trilogy in New Zealand, it has some visual resemblances to the LotR films, and of course is, like those, an expensive fantasy full of magic, strange creatures and broad landscapes.
Surprisingly, the story begins with German planes bombing London during World War II. The Pevensie children—Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund, Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) flee their home with their mother (Judy McIntosh), though Edmund ducks back to retrieve a photo of their father, off fighting in World War II. Mrs. Pevensie (never to be seen again) sends them off to the country to state at the vast, dim, ramshackle old home of reclusive scientist—or something—Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent). We never learn what happens to their father—perhaps that will be in a sequel?—but the period allows the director to use an Andrews Sisters song on the soundtrack.

Peter and the somewhat sullen Edmund squabble frequently, and youngest Lucy likes to explore the old house. During a game of hide-and-seek, in an otherwise empty room she finds a large free-standing wardrobe, shrouded in a sheet. To hide from the others, she climbs in and backs through a bunch of fur coats.

Back and back she goes, and just when she’s wondering just how big this wardrobe is, she steps out into a snowy forest. It’s all trees and snow everywhere, quite beautiful and outdoorsy—except there is that lamp post standing there. She meets Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), delighted to learn that he’s a faun, complete with goat legs (perfectly realized), horns and an odd nose. He’s more surprised to see her than she is to see him, for the children of Adam and Eve (human beings) have not been seen in this land of Narnia for many years.

Friendly Mr. Tumnus takes the awed and delighted Lucy to his cozy cave, and tells her of the prophecy: four children of Adam and Eve will help Aslan, the true ruler of Narnia, to free itself from the icy grip of the White Witch, who’s unjustly proclaimed herself Queen of Narnia. The land is in perpetual winter, without even the pleasure of Christmas. But Aslan is reported to have returned to Narnia—and Lucy and her siblings must be the four of the prophecy.

After she returns to the old house through the wardrobe, Lucy is irritated that no one believes her—but Edmund checks out the wardrobe himself, and also ends up in Narnia. He encounters the White Witch in her reindeer-drawn sleigh; she inveigles him with Turkish delight and praise, and he innocently blabs about his siblings and the return of Aslan.

After he returns to the old house, all four children clamber into the wardrobe and enter Narnia. One drawback of the story is that neither Peter nor Susan are well characterized, just Elder Sister and Elder Brother, little else. And they’re entirely too credulous and accepting of the wonders of Narnia. All four children, however, are taken aback to meet a chatty beaver (voice of Ray Winstone), a friendly type who immediately invites them to his lodge on a frozen pond. His equally friendly wife (Dawn French) welcomes them, and they make plans to rendezvous with Aslan. However, Edmund, now uncomfortable, slips away.

He heads for the White Witch’s palace, surrounded by all too realistic—and agonized-looking—statuary. At first, he’s glad to meet her—but when he won’t reveal where his family is, she imprisons him in the same cell with Mr. Tumnus.

Guided by the two beavers, the others set out in search of him, wanting to have Edmund with them before they meet Aslan. We see the influence of Aslan’s return on Narnia—it’s gradually thawing out, and the kids encounter none other than Father Christmas (James Cosmo), now able to return to Narnia. He gives them each gifts—Peter a sword, Susan a bow and quiver, etc.—that will help them later on.

Soon they’re being pursued by the White Witch’s legion of vicious, sarcastic talking wolves, still dangerous though Narnia is thawing around them. A crafty fox (Rupert Everett) is on the side of Aslan, but doesn’t fool the wolves. After some dangers, the children finally do meet the regal, majestic Aslan (Liam Neeson), the noblest lion in movie history. And the stage is set for a big showdown between good and evil.
Because Lewis’ books are known for their Christian imagery, the movie doesn’t evade this, but it’s subtle enough that very few younger than 15 or so are likely even to recognize it. To them, this will be just an enormous adventure aimed straight at them—but it isn’t likely to always hit the target.

“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was filmed from a script by Ann Peacock, director Adamson and the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It may be too faithful in that while it’s well structured for a novel, it’s awkward as a movie. The pacing is off, with lumps of action scenes rather than a regular flow integrated into the overall story. Children are likely to squirm after the Pevensie quartet meet Aslan and until the battles start. But the battles are wonderful, and entirely suited for children: they’re acrobatic and action-packed, and blows are struck, but there’s little or no blood, very few clearly dead characters. Mostly it’s exciting, although some will become impatient waiting for Susan to be able to let fly her red-feathered arrows.

And some children will be deeply disturbed by the death of Aslan—he’s a Christ figure, he has to die a martyr’s death—even though he is soon resurrected in a glorious sunrise—he’s a Christ figure, he has to be reborn. To a degree, the success of the movie depends largely on getting the audience to believe in Aslan as a character. The effects are almost good enough, but not quite; all too often Alsan’s fur and flesh flow rather than move, as if rendered on a heavy fluid.

But the character works anyway, largely because Liam Neeson provides the voice. He has, of course, a great voice—but it’s more than just a very good voice, it’s very much the right sort of good voice: deep, rich, commanding but compassionate, a shade weary, infinitely wise. Brian Cox originally did the voice, but was—wisely, it turns out—replaced by Neeson.

William Moseley and Anna Popplewell are restricted by the limitations of their roles, rarely allowed to show any emotions other than irritation or petulance (is petulance an emotion?). But Skandar Keynes is exactly right as Edmund, the one character who undergoes recognizable changes, and Georgie Henley is amazing—the true glory of the movie. She has the control of mood and tone of a seasoned actress, the charm of a young girl, and the intelligence of a sage; she’s one of the real finds of 2005, and I hope success is kind to her.

Technically, the film is everything a movie on this scale should be. Although the sets are essentially simple—the snowy forest, the ice palace, the tents of Aslan’s followers—they’re handsome and well built. The sound work is outstanding, especially in the battles—it’s realistic but never brutal. The sound is especially well designed in the snowy scenes; sound is different in snowy landscapes than those covered with greenery, and so it is here. There’s a hushed quality to the forest scenes.

Donald McAlpine, the great Australian cinematographer, again fulfills all the demands and goes beyond them—even for scenes where much of what is visible was added in post-production.

This is the first live-action feature directed by Andrew Adamson (“Shrek”), but he shows a controlled and steady hand, even if he can’t seem to invest most of the movie with much tension, nor does he build to a climax. In fact, the movie extends on after the climax with the four children now adults; this is probably true to the book, but it feels awkward and incomplete here.

I’m sure Disney hopes that “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” will be as successful as the first Lord of the Rings movie, leading to a series of C.S. Lewis Narnia movies. This film is well-done, but I’m afraid it may not ender the gotta-see-it-again sensation that big, expensive movie series must have to succeed. Time will tell.

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