(image curtesy of Disneypictures.com)
In the wake of the “Lords of the Rings” trilogy, many now see the possibility of translating other previously “unfilmable” properties to the celluloid (or digital) format. What was previously only attainable in the realm of the imagination can now, with the toolbox of new tricks available to the well funded movie maker, be realized on the silver screen for a whole new generation to appreciate. The most recent addition to this endeavor is the recently released “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”.
Written by C.S. Lewis in 1948, “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” was the first of what was to become 7 books written about the magical land of Narnia. Unlike the works of his one-time friend and colleague J.R.R Tolkien, “The Chronicles of Narnia” was geared more towards the younger set of readership than the more young adult orientated “Lord of the Rings” series. The set of stories in the “Chronicles of Narnia” reads more like a collection of beloved fairy tales comparatively to the fantasy action adventures of the “Lord of the Rings” series.
While both stories were sent in fantastic environments, the geography of Narnia was remarkable less developed comparatively to Tolkien’s tome which lent to the result that the stories in Narnia felt much smaller in scope compared to the tales of Middle-Earth. One other major difference in both works is that there are more gaps in the story telling of Narnia that have been the charm of the whole collection. In Narnia, the readers imagination plays a much larger role as readers most often had fill in the missing events based on the description that Lewis left. While this could be argued as bad story telling, I believe that it is this component that made “The Chronicles of Narnia” such as success among the imaginative pre teen crowd.
I bought the collected volumes of “The Chronicles of Narnia”, having never read the stories as a child, a week before to browse through before watching the film. For what I was able to determine from glancing through the book and sitting through the recently released film adaptation was that it was true to the source material for the most part. It was interesting to see how much they had to make up in the film to fill in the gaps that was left by Lewis in the books to fill in the running time of 140 minutes. I have heard that the opposite was true in the making of “Lord of the Rings” as it had so much more details that could not make it to the final cut of the film.
The film begins with the Pevensie siblings sent away from London to the country side to escape the air raids happening over their heads during the Second World War. Older brother Peter (William Moseley) and older sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) had to take care of the younger siblings Edmund (Skandar Keynes) who was resentful of Peter being the father figure of the group and the youngest sibling, Lucy (Georgie Henley) was not sure what was happening around her. After a train ride, a fairly familiar visual device for the beginning of an adventure thanks to the popular Harry Potter films, the four siblings found themselves in the care of Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) and his stern housekeeper Mrs. Macready (Elizabeth Hawthorne) in his calm estate in the countryside.
It was at this country estate that the youngest of the Pevensie siblings stumbled across the titular wardrobe during a rainy day game of hide and seek . Upon entering the wardrobe, Lucy finds herself transported to the magical realm of Narnia where she meets the faun (half-man, half goat) Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) who immediately recognizes her as a “daughter of Eve”. Although under strict orders to deliver any humans found to the White Witch that ruled Narnia, he lets Lucy go with a warning to avoid the White Witch at all cost.
Lucy’s story was immediately dismissed as a child’s fantasy by the other older siblings upon her return. On her next trip, unbeknownst to her, Edmund followed her through the wardrobe and was promptly discovered by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) who tempts him with sweets and promises of power if he were to deliver all the other siblings to her the next time they came through the portal.
The opportunity soon comes when all four Pevensie siblings found themselves on the other side of the wardrobe. After discovering that the hovel where Mr. Tumnus lived was destroyed by the White Witch’s orders, they were then taken in by the Beavers (Ray Winstone and Dawn French) who told them about the great leonine savior Aslan and the role that they were to play in the prophesy that would release Narnia from the 100 year winter created by the White Witch. Before any of them could act on this new information, a disgruntled Edmund had slipped quietly away to see the White Witch only to be captured and thrown into the icy dungeon for not bringing all his siblings with him.
Fearing for their sibling’s safety, the remaining Pevensie children travel through Narnia with the Beavers to seek out Aslan. Their journey was closely followed by a band or wolves dispatched by the White Witch to bring them to her. After a thrilling chase across the snowy and frozen expanse of Narnia, the children arrived safely at the camp of Aslan’s forces. With no where else to go, they pleaded their case to Aslan (Liam Neeson) to help rescue Edmund from the clutches of the White Witch.
Edmund was eventually rescued when a band of Aslan’s forces followed the wolves retreat back to their camp after a failed attempt to capture the Pevensie siblings. His rescue was however not without a heavy price as Aslan had to sacrifice himself so that Edmund would be allowed to live. His death at the hands of the White Witch mobilized the troops now under the command of Peter to wage battle for Narnia against the forces of the White Witch. The climatic battle seemed to favor the forces of the White Witch until reinforcements led by a resurrected Aslan help turn the tide of battle to favor their side.
With the White Witch forces defeated, good predictably triumphs over evil and the Pevensie siblings fulfilled the prophesy that the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve would deliver Narnia from the unending winter. For their effort in freeing Narnia, each of the siblings were crowned as Kings and Queens of Narnia where they would rule until one day when they rediscovered the path that lead to the wardrobe during a hunt. Inexplicably, the Pevensie siblings decided to leave the magical Narnia for the drab real world where they found that time has not passed for them. An end-credits insert leaves the wardrobe door wide open for a sequel, as Lucy asks the Professor, "Will we ever go back?" to which he replies, "I expect so."
Comparisons to the concluded “Lord of the Rings” trilogy feature series are unavoidable and in this case, “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” falls short of the epic or scope of the first LOTR movies. The story and the way it was presented in this movie felt too simplistic and straight forward given that they had a lot more leg room to interpret the original text than Peter Jackson had with Tolkien’s tome. Having the Disney logo at the opening of the credits notwithstanding, I had hoped a more nuanced and modern retelling of this children’s fairy tale.
Fortunately for this film, the limitations of the story were at time masked by the dazzling displays of the CGI artistry and wonderful voice acting behind them. Most of the animals were animated and voiced beautifully and Andrew Adamson as the film’s director gave equal screen time for them to shine. I have to say that of all the CGI characters running around in this film, I would have to say that the best executed both technologically and developmentally would have to be the wolves. In more than a few scenes they have managed to thrill and menace the audience realistically and at times were much more interesting to look at than the actual live action actors.
For most part, the voice acting was spot on for these CGI characters. I particularly enjoyed the Cockney-accented Mr. and Mrs. Beaver as well as the sly character of Mr. Fox as played by deliciously by Rupert Everett. Liam Neeson, seemingly constantly typecast recently as the mature mentor/father figure, lends a quiet nobility and gravitas to the world wary Aslan. While I thought that the CGI execution of the depiction of Aslan could have been worked on more as it didn’t look as good as the wolves, it was easily overlooked after hearing the character’s line voiced by Neeson.
Unfortunately the same could not be said of the live action actors of the film. William Moseley’ Peter did not have much to do for most of the movie other than looking blandly blonde and pretty to look at. Anna Popplewell’s Susan fared no better as the character was left woefully underdeveloped and relegated to the role of counterpoint to boring blonde Peter. Getting the worse end of the bargain has to be Skandar Keynes’s Edmund who through much of the movie was cast as an unlikable brat who was not even given the chance to show any redeeming value other than perhaps the constant look of guilt that he shows after he realized what he has done. The only shining gem of the bunch was Georgie Henley’s Lucy who she imbued with equal amounts of naiveté and wonderment. Her scenes with Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) were a joy to watch and was definitely her best work in the movie compared to her other scenes.
Special mention should also be given to the White Witch as played by Tilda Swinton. Her icy demeanor and restrained manner further enhances her fiery outburst for time to time beautifully. It could have been easy for someone to over do and play the White Witch as something closer to Cruella de Ville but Swinton masterfully avoided that pitfall. Her White Witch was both a tempting seductress and a manipulative ice queen as the same time. Unfortunately that all breaks down when she has less lines to say and have more poses to do as in the climatic battle field. Depending on your mood at the time, her posing during the fight were either laughable or cringe-worthy to watch. I felt the same way the last time I saw her as Gabriel in “Constantine”.
The climatic battles, which owned more to LOTR’s influence than Lewis’s original text, in and of itself pales in comparison to the battle scenes from LOTR. Unlike LOTR, both side have more variety of combatants both familiar and magical in nature. Instead of using this more as an advantage, the film goes on to do the battle scene as derivatively common of all the large scale battle scenes that we have seen on screen lately. Other than the blink-and-you-miss-it use of gryphon air power (also not from the book), the battle scenes were so common looking that it was hard not to think that you have seen it done better before. Given how much they had expanded from the original text about this climatic battle, I would have expected them to do more with it to punch up the intensity of the movie.
Another tool of developing the intensity of the movie that was conspicuously missing was the soundtrack. Looking back I am surprise how forgettable the soundtrack was for a movie of this nature. From the credits it seems that seven people are credited for the score, including Alanis Morissette and yet I could not remember any part of the soundtrack leaving a lasting impression like it did in the LOTR series. Unlike the character and landscape themes carefully created for LOTR, the soundscape of Narnia was a tool criminally underutilized when this movie needed all the help that it could get to underscore the action happening on screen.
Although this movie is being marketed as Christian fable in America by the neo-conservatives and their Christian right-wing allies, the movie itself does not try to be too preachy in tone or execution. While some of the imagery in the movie, specifically scenes of Aslan’s sacrifice, execution and eventual resurrection have Christian underpinnings underlying them, they are only apparent for those searching for such imagery. For most of the children watching this movie, these scenes are not imbued with the interpretation that the adults have tagged to them. For them, they are just scenes that carry the story forth.
Watching “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” in the final analysis is a good way to spend an afternoon with the family. The colorful settings, new characters and a new magical land to explore would appease the children would be willing to sit through 140 minutes of this movie. Life long fans of C.S. Lewis’s works would sigh a breath of relief to see a half way decent visual interpretation of their beloved tale on the silver screen and be happy that it didn’t turn out worse than it did. For other viewers already accustomed to the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings series would find this film painfully light, teracly sweet and ultimately unfulfilling. Hopefully they would do it better if they ever do the next installment.
Monday, December 12, 2005
(image curtesy of Disneypictures.com)