Chronicles of Narnia, The: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (United Kingdom/United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As the bean counters toil, Eustace waits. So does Jill. And Polly and Digory, too. Walden Media has optioned all seven of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia books, but whether the other six (or, more likely, five - since The Horse and His Boy seems an unlikely choice to film) make it to the screen will depend heavily on how much money The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe earns. If the movie scores big with audiences, we will likely be watching Prince Caspian in another two or three years.

This marks the fifth time that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been adapted, but the first time it has been accomplished as a major motion picture. The first version was a radio play done while C.S. Lewis was still alive. The second, a 10-part TV series, was produced a few years after his death. There was also a 1979 animated edition, and a three-hour interpretation made for British TV in 1988. The only new things that Andrew Adamson's adaptation brings to the table are better production values and more impressive special effects. There is a tendency to say that this The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is redundant.

The film is geared primarily toward a younger audience and parents who want to have something to see with their brood. Those expecting the epic scope and depth of The Lord of the Rings will be disappointed. Both sagas are fantasies, and both feature dramatic battle scenes, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is sanitized. The conflict of armies is sketched rather than developed, and many of the themes are presented in easily digestible chunks. Lewis' book was a short, clear-cut fairy tale aimed at children. The movie adopts this tone and approach. It is faithful to the author's vision, and that represents both a strength (for those who have appropriate expectations) and a weakness (for those who are anticipating something more in line with The Lord of the Rings - as hinted at by the commercials).

During the height of World War II, the four Pevensie children - Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - are evacuated from London and sent to stay in the house of the enigmatic Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent). While playing hide and seek, Lucy discovers a mysterious wardrobe. Exploring its contents, she finds herself transported to the magical world of Narnia. She makes friends with the faun, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), and learns that this world is trapped in a 100-year winter ("Always winter, never Christmas") because of the rule of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). Lucy returns to her own world, but later comes back to Narnia, this time in the company of her brothers and sister. Edmund, seduced by the White Witch's promises of candy, betrays his siblings only to be imprisoned. Lucy, Peter, and Susan must seek to rescue him and save Narnia. Their primary helpers are a pair of beavers, who are taking them to meet Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson), the leonine messiah of the land.

The film, despite having come out of the same New Zealand workshop that did such an excellent job bringing The Lord of the Rings to life, lacks the same degree of technical polish. Little glitches in the special effects can be seen from time-to-time. The most persistent of these is the look of Aslan, who never appears real. He looks like a computer-generated lion. If one wishes to view Aslan as "more" than a big cat, then one could consider the "unrealness" to be an asset. To me, it looked like the computer animators couldn't quite get it right. Also, I have to question the decision to use Liam Neeson's voice. Although Neeson has perfect diction, he lacks the "booming" quality that would have leant the lion's voice added authority.

Some scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (such as the one featuring Father Christmas) are childish. Others (which I will not mention here to avoid providing spoilers) are poignant. The film's central tragedy is handled with sensitivity, and tears will flow. On balance, more of the movie works than doesn't, but this isn't 140 minutes of unqualified successes.

My biggest reservations relate to the climactic battle scene. Lewis spent little time in the book describing this. It is, after all, a children's story. For the movie, director Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2) and his team decide to show a clash between armies in which hundreds of creatures are killed but, in doing this, they avoid blood and gore. It becomes a clean, perfunctory war, and that's an odd and unsatisfying approach. If we're going to be shown a battle, the entire thing should be depicted in its ugliness. Instead we get a cleaned-up version with plenty of "look away" edits. It gets the movie its desired PG rating, although I would argue that despite what the MPAA says, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contains material that's too intense for young children. Parents with offspring under ten should take this under advisement.

The acting is fine, although lacking in the recognition category. The biggest stars are Tilda Swinton and Jim Broadbent, neither of whom would be considered a "household name." Swinton does a good job boosting the evil quotient of her character, while Broadbent's part qualifies as little more than a heavily made-up cameo. As previously mentioned, Liam Neeson has a sizeable vocal part. Also lending their voices are Rupert Everett and Ray Winstone. Three of the four children are portrayed by actors in their first major roles. Only Anna Popplewell has a prior resume.

It's difficult to determine how audiences will react to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Those expecting something in the vein of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings will not be satisfied. Much has been made about the movie's "Christian connections." However, while it's true that Lewis' books are allegorical (with Aslan representing Christ), the movie doesn't hammer home this point. It's on-screen for those on the lookout, but I can't imagine anyone considering this a "religious picture." It's fantasy lite - a story with dwarves, giants, minotaurs, cyclopses, and witches that can be enjoyed by families. Personally, I hope The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe succeeds. I would love to see what can be done with Volume II, Prince Caspian.

Chronicles of Narnia, The: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (United Kingdom/United States, 2005)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-09
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1