"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is the latest in a string of fantasy book adaptations brought to life, and its success is almost guaranteed. Following the domination of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the "Harry Potter" movies, "Narnia" was the most logical next and overdue series, even if author C.S. Lewis never wanted his books to be made into a live-action film.
Amazingly, "Narnia" is much like a blend between the two other series - it stars children and talking animals and skews toward a younger crowd, much like the "Harry Potter" movies supposedly do, while at the same time is set in a fantasy land of strange creatures who meet on the battlefields to determine whether good or evil will win. From a marketing standpoint, it is the perfect movie - but once audiences are in the theater, it's anyone's guess.
"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first of seven books by Mr. Lewis, is about four children, who, stranded in the countryside to escape the London bombings of World War II, find themselves playing a game of hide and seek one day and manage to stumble across a magical wardrobe that leads to the world of Narnia, which has been engulfed in a cold winter for a hundred years under the reign of the evil White Witch. When the Witch discovers that the four children have arrived, she is frightened, for there is a prophecy that two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve will defeat her and strip her of her throne. To make matters worse for the witch, Aslan the lion, the true King of Narnia, has returned to wage battle once and for all.
You can say all you want about the religious ramifications of the story, as C.S. Lewis was very obvious in his parallels between Aslan and Jesus, but whether you're religious or not it really doesn't matter. The movie keeps very true to the book in most ways, and thus the religious overtones are there, but unless you're specifically looking for them it's really not going to affect things one way or another. I'm an athiest, but "The Chronicles of Narnia" was my favorite book series growing up. It just doesn't matter.
Now, about the movie... As mentioned already, the most noticeable thing about the film is how faithful it is to the book. Yes, the beginning is a bit more drawn out, but otherwise most if not all plot developments remain the same. Fans of the book will be happy to see this. Unfortunately, that also means that everything in the book, whether it translates to film or not, is included...
"Narnia" is like the first "Harry Potter" movies in many ways, in that it is faithful to the book, has a lot of imagination, but lacks the tightness and visual perfection you'd expect nowadays. It is not about the special effects as much as it is about the look of the film - despite being in a magical world, much of the movie looks pretty standard, and, combined with a story that, while good, does have some pacing issues when translated into a live-action story, leaves some potential wasted. There are long stretches, especially in the middle act, where nothing much happens; the movie really bogs down in the scenes leading up to the major battle sequence. Perhaps it was late and perhaps I was tired from a long week at work, but I found myself getting rather anxious by the end.
Director Andrew Adamson, who was responsible for the very funny "Shrek" movies, has done a good job with his first live-action picture; the movie is consistently solid, amusingly entertaining and all around well-done. That does not mean he did an award-winning job. While I understand the risk of cutting out sections of the book, a good twenty minutes could have been edited out to tighten up the screenplay and move things along.
Thankfully, the actors all do a pretty good job; when compared to the first "Harry Potter," they are better than how those actors were when they started their careers. The standout performance award goes to 10-year old Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy; she is button cute and the most captivating of the characters. I expected a little more from Tilda Swinton, who I consider to be a fine actress, but the fault lies more on the screenplay than the woman; again, the screenplay isn't bad, just standard. "If it's a war Aslan wants... It's a war he shall get," is one of the rather typical lines Swinton has to deliver.
As for the special effects, it's a mixed bag. At times, things are pretty seamless, but at other times, they're only so-so. The battle sequence is top notch, even though Adamson was forced to cut away quickly on every kill shot due to the PG rating, but other effects, such as many of the talking animals and the sleigh that the White Witch rides around on, are glaringly lacking compared to such films as "The Lord of the Rings." That being said, it's pretty difficult to make a perfect-looking picture when two-thirds of the characters are talking animals.
"The Chronicles of Narnia" is a fun movie that can be enjoyed by the whole family, even though it features a battle sequence and a slightly scary villain. It's good all around but never great; these perhaps are the limitations of trying to make what is clearly a children's book appeal to all age groups. I am a big fan of the book, but aspects of the movie just didn't click for me because I was outside of the target age group. A little tightening in areas and some more ambitious direction could have made this film great, but instead we get to settle for a still-good family action movie. I can live with that.
DVD Review (A-)
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe hit DVD back in April, but as one might expect, the studio is trying to make some extra money with a new extended version. Thankfully, you're not just throwing your money away if you go for this Extended Cut - the package includes four discs of goodness, which include not only a longer version of the theatrical film but a full-length documentary about author C.S. Lewis, among other things.
Along the lines of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Disney has provided a comprehensive look at the production. Unfortunately, Disc 1 does not start off well. Aside from the extended cut, the main feature here are the bloopers, and they are about the worst bloopers ever conceived. Bloopers are always my favorite, but the Narnia ones are boring and hardly funny, if at all.
Disc 2 features an in-depth look at the making of Narnia (the world), the characters and more. While I wouldn't say these are as good as the featurettes found on Pirates, they still beat out most of the competition. The most interesting part of the DVD is where the movie explains director Andrew Adamson's involvement in the film, and how it was a risk to hire a director who had never done live action before yet also beneficial for such a CG-intensive movie.
Disc 3 includes the full-length documentary on C.S. Lewis, which definitely is made in an interesting way. While I don't know it was the best approach, the documentary is a mixture of Lewis' writings, imaginations and factual elements, most of which are "narrated" by Lewis himself - a.k.a. an actor pretending to be Lewis. I lost interest after a little while, but it's decent enough.
Disc 4 is where the most beefy special features are, as this contains a two hour and 20 minute look at the full production experience, an "anatomy" of the battle sequences, and a gallery (why do people want to look at galleries when they can just watch the movie?). Again, the complete production experience isn't quite as good as the one on the Pirates DVD, but is still well worth watching if you are interested into what goes on beyond the final draft. At the same time, this production featurette perhaps spends a bit too much time showing scenes from the movie rather than showing the behind-the-scenes development.
This new four disc version is well worth it if you are a fan of the movie and like a lot of features. If you're buying the set for your kids, though, I would go with the standard version - little kids won't be as interested in most of this features.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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