I could probably spend thousands of words alone writing about the synergy between The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. How Tolkein and Lewis encouraged each other, and worked on their epic fantasy series concurrently. About how it was Lewis' encouragement that led directly to the writing of The Rings series, and how it was the success of The Rings films that led to the making of the Narnia chronicles. But this is a movie review. We don't spend hours when reviewing a sci-fi movie comparing it to Star Wars - so if you want endless comparisons between the two franchises here, you are not going to get it. Narnia is what it is - it is not Rings light - and that is how this reviewer is going to treat it.
Over the years, the Chronicles of Narnia have been a staple part of childhood. A series of seven books, the first to be published was The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” although in chronological order, The Magician's Nephew actually comes first. Covering thousands of years in the life of the mystical land of Narnia, and the visits paid to it by the Pevensie children and their relations, the series opens into a rich tapestry of fantasy and allegory. The only major attempt to film them so far was in an excellent BBC adaptation which condensed five of the novels down into four series.
When it was announced, therefore, that Hollywood was turning its attention to Lewis' beloved franchise, fans of the series (of which I was one) immediately began to worry. When it was announced that Andrew Adamson of Shrek fame was directing - this fan, at least, was even more worried. What I got, however, was perfection. It may not be the finest fantasy film ever made, but in terms of a translation of the book it is pretty much flawless.
The film opens with a WWII air raid on London, and the subsequent consequences. Over the beginning credits, we are shown the children's evacuation from London and it is in this early stage that we realise that Adamson just GETS The Narnia Chronicles. The sheer emotion that exists in this scene alone is immense. I have spoken to my mother extensively about the experience of evacuees (she was one during the war) and the way this scene is portrayed is beautifully done. The immaculate period settings, the casual way the camera pans across the railway platform, and the odd well placed line “Maybe we have been incorrectly labelled?” just pricks the tear ducts every time.
When the children arrive at their destination, they find themselves in the house of the mysterious Professor, alongside his housekeeper Mrs. McReady. When a game of hide and seek ensues, Lucy (the outstanding Georgie Henley) hides in the eponymous wardrobe and finds herself in a strange world. She meets a faun Mr. Tumnous (James McAvoy) who almost betrays her to the White Witch before enabling her escape. Subsequently the whole family find themselves back in the mysterious world, and young Edmund (Skander Keyenes) comes under the influence of the witch - whilst the others are taken to meet Aslan (Liam Neeson). Under his guidance they form an army which must fight against the legions of the white witch for nothing less than the future of Narnia.
What makes this film unique is the juxtaposition of the close family dynamic between the children, and the way their conflict is played out against the wider concerns of the future of Narnia itself. Unusually for films of this type you have three siblings who are close, and a fourth (Edmund) who feels like an outsider. Of course, by the end the four are reunited and closer than ever but this journey is dealt with in a way that is sensitive and believable - cheap Hollywood sentimentality is never allowed to intrude.
One of the reasons this aspect of the production, and the film as a whole, succeeds is in the performance of the children. Peter (William Moseley) may well be wooden and not up to scratch (although he does look the part) but the other three children are much better. Keynes and Popplewell (as Edmund and Susan respectively) do an excellent job - bringing a likeability and vulnerability to their roles which serves the production well. But the true standout here is Georgie Henley as Lucy. Probably THE pivotal character of the film her casting was crucial - and she is quite simply outstanding here. She is an actress who is capable of portraying fear, sadness, excitement, and glee in equal measure and could easily have stepped straight out of the pages of the novel.
Surrounding these four are a selection of fine talent, both on screen and with voice acting. Ray Winstone and Dawn French are superb as the voice of the beavers - managing to sound like a genuine married couple that know each other's foibles inside out, and Rupert Everett too brings a welcome gravitas to the animated menagerie with his portrayal of Fox. However, all the voice acting talent is dwarfed by Liam Neeson as Aslan. Aslan is the essential character that binds all seven novels together. A Christ-Like figure in the form of a lion, Neeson manages to make him lovable, kind, and yet fierce and frightening at the same time. No mean feat at all.
Of course, such an epic fantasy movie will always be underpinned by its special effects - and here it is a combination of CGI, Prosthetics, and Make-up. The attention to detail is quite simply astonishing and every penny of the estimated $180m dollar budget is there on screen. From the period detail in the early scenes (the view from the planes attacking London is breathtaking), we move into the beautiful realisation of Narnia itself. To any fan of the book, the first time you see the lamp post in the middle of the snowbound woods it is hard not to imagine you are there yourself. It really is breathtakingly done. When Mr. Tumnous appears - it is plain to see that the attention to detail is second to none. This is then extended to the wide range of other worldly creatures that appear throughout Narnia - beasts, goblins, fauns, and centaurs are realised as much as possible by real actors - with CGI grafted on to their bodies by those geniuses at Weta. The result is a living breathing organic world that really does convince. When CGI is used (on the animal creatures Fox, Beaver, and others) the result is pretty seamless integration. Compare this to, say, The Golden Compass and the difference is quite breathtaking. The latter looks like a movie made 10 years ago in comparison.
All this mixture of real world and CGI is handled by Andrew Adamson, the director of the Shrek series. As mentioned earlier Adamson shows a clear affinity with the source material, and also does a superb job with the actors as well as the special effects. In a film like this, one is usually concentrated on at the expense of the other - but here the two co-exist seamlessly.
Is this the perfect blockbuster then? Well, as a translation of the book to celluloid then yes it is. One cannot imagine it being any better. However, as a film all is not perfect. The middle section does tend to sag a little and in this version the end battle does seem a little anaemic in places. There is a director's cut available which adds around 20 minutes to the film. In this version, the battle scene is much more brutal and lasts longer and there are also many small additions elsewhere in the film which add greater emotional depth. Sadly, in the version Disney has chosen to bestow on Blu ray viewers all builds up to a battle scene which doesn't quite justify its role as fitting climax. This is a great shame, although admittedly those who have not seen the extended version will be unlikely to miss the subtle additions.
To sum up, any fan of Narnia will quite simply lap this up. It is the perfect rendition of the book and the world. Fantasy film fans are likely to be divided. Many will not be able to get over the prejudice of the leading characters being children - and will refer to the film as fantasy-lite. This it most certainly isn't, and it is their loss if they are missing out on a film that stands up both within the genre and to the source material. As a family film, this may well be too brutal for younger children - but anyone over the age of 9 or 10 will lap this up.
Adamson has produced one of the finest fantasy book to film adaptations ever made, and has done justice to one of the most beloved children's books of all time. Prince Caspian will be following into the cinema in the next few weeks, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is already in pre-production. If you haven't yet immersed yourself into the world of Narnia this Blu ray is the ideal way to start. An astounding film.
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