The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Review
    Following the same trajectory as The Lord Of The Rings with regards to DVD editions, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe - the first instalment of The Chronicles Of Narnia - arrives in a new extended 4-disc incarnation. But the similarities between the two gargantuan fantasy epics don't end there. Both original stories were conceived at the same time, by two like-minded literary geniuses who sought the solace and sanctuary of the fabulous imaginary worlds they had created. Both sagas have become legendary tomes that are probably owned by millions more people than have actually read them. Both have seen earlier and less successful attempts to visualise them. Both have since found cinematic respectability and been brought to robust, CG-laden life by Antipodean filmmakers who have also used locations deep down under to help render their depictions. And both have now been bestowed 2-disc DVD releases followed by mind-bogglingly comprehensive 4-discers. It all seems like some sort of immortal symmetry. JRR Tolkien and his myth-loving cohort C.S. Lewis, I firmly believe, would have approved with such a celluloid and digital umbilical linkage.

    Aimed deliberately at a younger audience, as were the original books, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is a fabulous tale of children, relocated from the blitz of World War II, finding a magical kingdom far removed from the fear, blood and chaos of the world they know - a fantastical realm of talking animals, mythical creatures and wicked ice-witches - and discovering their own hidden courage and powers as they head unwittingly towards destinies undreamt of. When little Lucy Pevensie finds the gateway to this mysterious land of fable, danger and mystery in the back of a huge wardrobe - an innocent game of hide and seek that leads to an enchanting, snow-covered dreamworld - the adventure that practically every school-kid knows begins in earnest. Followed by her older sister Susan and her two brothers, the elder and wiser Peter and then the more easily-led-astray Edmund, the children make the acquaintance of Mr. Tunmus, a forest faun. And, pretty soon, they discover the delicate balance in which the kingdom of Narnia exists and come to understand their own part within the fabric of a mythical prophecy that will ultimately see good triumphing over the evil of the White Queen who has held the sorrowful land in the icy grip of a hundred-year winter. The story is an ecological delight, what with the armies of light and goodness being comprised of beavers, bears, foxes, centaurs and, of course, the mighty lion, Aslan, as their noble leader. These are the forces of nature - quite literally - and only through their victory will light and warmth be returned to the realm. But the themes that dominate the original story and, inevitably, the film as well, are those governed by the much-ballyhooed religious iconography - mainly being the concepts of sacrifice and resurrection, rebirth and salvation.

    “You're a family. You might want to try acting like one.”

    The young performers portray their characters well. It is so easy for critics for stab at such young actors for perceived dramatic shortcomings, and in several reviews that I have read regarding the principal cast for Narnia, this ugly trait has been more than apparent. However, I think that the four do a fabulous job of bringing these war-dispersed adventurers to life, carefully keeping in-character and rising to the big moments when called upon. Little Georgie Hensley is the most memorable as the wide-eyed Lucy, and she nails the part magnificently with an aura of wonder and innocence. Peter, played by Prince William-look-alike William Mosely, is more than up to the task of taking up sword and shield and finding honour on the battlefield. His edgier, and slightly unbalanced younger sibling Edmund is given life by Skandor Keynes and he supplies a few nice tinges of conscience and remorse to a role that is, at least in part, a little deeper textured than the much more formulaic other children. As Susan, Anna Popplewell lacks a lot of the innocence the others possess and is, therefore, somewhat less believing, and ironically less believable, when she meets the mythical denizens of Narnia, and learns to use her newfound bow. But, when it comes to the family gelling with a credible sense of togetherness and familiarity, the quartet definitely shine - and, let's face it, this is the area where it really counts. The only error with the depiction of the Pevensies is during a brief scene when we see the group as grownups, where the older actors really seem ill at ease, unconvincing and wooden. And there is a further troubling aspect to this in the notion that the continuation of humans in Narnia seems to be dependent on two brothers and two sisters propagating the species. But then I haven't read any of the other books in the series, so I could be approaching this whole Adam and Eve concept that Lewis was so besotted by with the wrong interpretation entirely.

    Comparisons to Peter Jackson's triumphant attempts to brings Tolkien's classic to the screen are unavoidable ... though this is, perhaps to some eyes, a little unfair. But the temptation to herald Lewis's work and this adaptation of it as Rings-light is nigh on impossible to ignore. The book was slight, simplistic and innocent whilst Tolkien strived for serious socio-political metaphor. Lewis favoured the whimsical lore of fairytale, whilst in the Rings a vast and incredibly complex world was created, with the characters equally dark and multi-faceted. Thus, of course, the films borne out of them had to acquire similar constructions. Be that as it may, Peter Jackson took the difficult prose of Tolkien and, dare I say it, improved upon it immensely, whilst keeping faithful to the author's ideology with added realism, gravitas and relevance. Andrew (Shrek) Adamson, with the comparatively simpler fare of Narnia, still falls far short in capturing the size, scale and sheer wonder that Lewis delighted in and, worse yet, singularly fails to convince us that this magical land and its residents actually exist. He has said many times that he wanted us to believe that these events had really happened (exactly the same thing that Peter Jackson said when he embarked on his epic) but the resulting film feels all the more lacklustre and paper-thin when viewed with that grand intention of his in mind. Even his Shrek films had a more credible setting and a much clearer and reliable sense of disbelief-suspension. But then I was never really that enamoured by the original story, either. And I fully concede that the little people in your life will more than likely hold a far higher, and probably much more relevant, opinion about Narnia than I do. It is certainly true in the case of my son, who simply laps this stuff up - when he isn't in pure Jack Sparrow mode.

    “He's a beaver. He shouldn't be saying anything!”

    The CG effects aren't of the same detailed ilk that the Rings trilogy wowed us with, looking much simpler and far more broad, the emphasis, like much of the film, is on colour rather than texture, illustration rather then living, breathing entities. The creatures are splendidly imaginative, if a little insubstantial in regards to weight and realism. But the kids are hardly going to notice this shortcoming when they have Centaurs, Minotaurs and packs of ferocious wolves to savour. But a more crippling effect is dealt the landscapes - New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Poland coming over without any of the awesome splendour that we have come to expect from such well-lensed locales. I was a little disappointed with the depiction of the snowy wastes of Narnia because they seemed so, well ... dull. Likewise the frozen statues decorating the White Queen's frigid palace, which didn't even come close to meeting the atmospheric eeriness that I had imagined when reading the book. Even the image of the snow-covered lamppost on the way to Mr. Tunmus's house lacks the iconic quality that Peter Jackson would have bestowed it. Adamson strives for grandeur, but no matter how hard he tries, the stateliness and majesty of the story forever eludes him, leading to a huge expansive-looking environment that comes across, quite ironically, as hollow and bland. Interaction with the sweeping CG backgrounds is a problem, too. The matte lines surrounding the cast as they traverse this vast landscape are all-too apparent - a factor that afflicted The Fellowship Of The Ring quite glaringly as well, but Jackson managed to clean all that up for its DVD transfer. Here though, we have far too many shots that look badly composed and only faintly above the quality of the old Ray Harryhausen films. Yes, maybe that's being too critical, but then this is a modern movie produced with all the tricks that modern cinema has at its disposal. Even simple things such as when Lucy observes a fish frozen in the river, the obvious fake-ness of the little girl set against the background is plain to see. But, time and time again, the big stuff that should, by rights, ignite the screen just come over as poorly visualised and lacking in fantastical conviction. The big battle is certainly worth waiting for, but there is nothing seen here that sticks in the mind, other than a nicely rendered dog-fight between a squadron of rock-dropping eagles and some of the Witch's grim-looking winged demons. It may be novel to witness platoons of Minotaurs surging across the plains, but when the creatures seem clumsy and unwieldy much of the sense of awe and fear is diluted. Fantastical clashes such as this have the bar that Peter Jackson raised to contend with and, whether this is for children or not, the battle for Narnia should have contained a little more grit to achieve the necessary effect. If the place and the ideal are worth fighting for - as so much of the dialogue strives to inform us that they are - then the resulting confrontation should be unafraid to reveal the dangers of such sacrifice. That said though, there is still the infamous sequence when Aslan (voiced by the now ubiquitous Liam Neeson) makes the ultimate sacrifice in the midst of the Witch's jeering, humiliating hordes - a scene that sticks with everyone who has ever read the book - and here, at last, Adamson finds the guts to wring the emotions out of the viewer. Something about this scene reminded me of the mercy killing that Fronsac is forced to deliver to the beast in Christophe Gans' excellent Brotherhood Of The Wolf - the look of noble defeat and resignation in the eye, perhaps. Or just the simple fact that no-one likes to see an animal suffer. Either way, I found the sequence quite moving and only wish that the rest of the film had managed to attain such of a level of intimacy and poignancy.

    “I have no interest in prisoners. Kill them all.”

    Tilda Swinton's ice-queen lacks vigour in every way, which is a huge misfortune to the film at large. Early meetings with the wayward Edmund possess none of the sinister ulterior motives that made the skin crawl as Lewis had intended. Swinton's voice has no power to it, and her fragile bone structure manifests none of the cool confidence and cruel beauty that even the crudest of conceptual artwork for the character contained. She is a good actress - she was one of the better aspects of the film version of Constantine, where she played the Angel Gabriel - but she doesn't imbue the Witch with any real sense of evil, just an unruly malice that makes her antics more bothersome than terrifying. Her differing looks throughout the film also manage to be somehow less interesting or intimidating than they should be. And even the great-sounding image of her riding into battle on a chariot drawn by polar bears is much less inspiring when actually witnessed on-screen. This is such a shame. When the chief villain has none of the shudder-some qualities required by the part, then from where do you draw the tension and the drama? I'm sorry if I keep on harking back to Lord Of The Rings, but there was a brief shot of Cate Blanchet's Galadriel as she reveals to Frodo how frightening and powerful she would be if he gave the ring to her which revealed the perfect look for Narnia's Witch. Adamson's depiction just doesn't come anywhere near to it, I'm afraid. Even her little dwarf helper is disappointing, making me long for David (Time Bandits) Rappaport's version in the classic TV comedy The Young Ones which, having just viewed it to remind myself, is so much more mischievous and menacing. Oh, and don't get me started on the inclusion of Father Christmas - poor old James Cosmo saddling up to ride with the reindeer across the sad, blighted lands of a gift-forsaken Narnia is just too much to take. It may be in the book, but here was a scene - if ever there was one - that could have done with being jettisoned. To bring such a figure into this world is a spectacularly odd thing to do - the double-magic effect of having a world-owned mythical character stepping into a uniquely fashioned world spun from one man's mind a device that actually serves to cancel out the spell of both.

    The music from Harry Gregson-Williams is another major disappointment. Although a fan of his work, I found his score here far too derivative and without a clear voice of its own. His main recurring theme irritates me because it is so similar to something from another composer. The problem is I can't for the life of me remember what it is. So, answers on a postcard please, folks. He also places a couple of soft, sappy pop tunes in there that just don't fit the imagery, the era or the story at all. It is another sad misstep in a film that loses its way all too often, I'm sorry to say.

    With regards to the extra scenes placed back into this extended edition, totalling around eight minutes, I'm afraid that I couldn't swear as to what or whereabouts they are. As you can gather, I am not much of a fan of the film and, although I do have the original 2-discer (for my son, you understand) I have only actually sat through the movie once before reviewing it this time out, so I really didn't notice anything different about it at all. The big battle is supposed to have some extra special effects to bolster it but, sorry folks, I didn't see anything I could recognise as being new and improved.

    So, despite some good performances from the kids, and from James McAvoy as the sprightly and touching faun Mr. Tunmus, I have to say that The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe was a big disappointment to me. Emotionally banal - save for Aslan's mane-shaving, of course - and intellectually less stimulating than Lewis's prose deserved, Adamson's adaptation seems afraid to really take on board the true magic of the story that spawned it. The film was, however, a great success and further adventures in Narnia seem assured. The cynic in me hardly relishes the prospect, but what can't be denied is that children have embraced it and many new minds have been opened to the possibilities of their own imaginations. And anything that can do that just has to be applauded.

    So, this is one for the kids then and, with that in mind, if you haven't already got a copy of the film, this version is certainly worth picking up in time for Christmas. Unsurprisingly, the very attractive gatefold packaging is very similar to those of the Rings Extended Editions.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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