The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, October 18, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Originally posted 12/21/05
Full review behind the jump

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

: Andrew Adamson
: Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
: Mark Johnson, Philip Steuer
: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, and featuring the vocal talents of Liam Neeson, Ray Winstone, Dawn French, Michael Madsen, Rupert Everett

The faun Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) isn’t broad or theatrical, and nothing in his speech hints at the arcane. Despite his animal lower half he doesn’t act like a mythical creature, because to himself he’s not a myth – he’s a bright-eyed, if slightly fussy, denizen of the woods carrying some parcels home and looking forward to a hot stove. Humans are the myth. And yet when he sees one, young Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) appear in the snow-covered woods, once he overcomes his surprise he speaks levelly with her, not with declarative pomp but politely, in language and accent she can easily understand.

McAvoy’s spot-on performance of this attitude is the key to both the book and this respectful adaptation of
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first in C.S. Lewis’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. Though it is often compared with Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings (the two were colleagues with something of a philosophical rivalry), it is fundamentally more accessible, less mysterious. It thus works better as fare for the young, but it does lack for the thoroughness and “terrifying romance” (to use Tolkein’s own words) of Rings.

But let’s stop this apples/oranges business, because what we have here is a fine and uplifting adventure that lets us not only bask once again in the wild countryside of New Zealand (where much of it was filmed), but marvel at the latest beauties and beasts that cutting edge effects work can realize. Fans of the book should be pleased and newcomers should be roused to appreciation as the Pevensie children leave behind the grim tragedy of England during the German Blitz of World War II and become legendary heroes in the pastoral kingdom of Narnia.

As the title hints, this is accomplished by means of a wardrobe, one that Lucy (smallest of the four children) thinks will serve well in a game of hide-and-seek. She and her three siblings are temporarily lodging at the country house of an eccentric and anti-social Professor (Jim Broadbent) because London has become too dangerous for them.

Peter (William Moseley) is the oldest, trying to be the straight arrow and the man of the family. Edmund (Skandar Keynes) rebels against his brother’s efforts – there’s a lonely and angry streak in him, it directs inward and outward alternatively. And Susan (Anna Popplewell) is the bookish Pevensie, her own intelligence often rendering her indecisive. Father is off fighting and they last saw Mother (Judy McIntosh) on the train platform, holding back tears and tying nametags round their necks in case they are lost or separated – they’re in a sea of children with name tags.

Although it knows we’re anxious to leave this real world behind, I’m grateful the movie doesn’t shortchange the sadness of their circumstances. The adaptation still rushes some, and takes the odd clumsy step in trying to clearly delineate each child’s personality in short, broad strokes, but it’s appropriate for the intended audience, and director Andrew Adamson (making his live-action debut after directing the first two Shrek pictures) moves things along crisply enough that it doesn’t offend in any lingering way.

You don’t have to wait long at all for young Lucy to slip into the wardrobe (a dark and evocative piece of wood, from a child’s low eyes it would indeed look like a portal), brush through the hanging fur coats and suddenly find herself in a cold and quiet forest, marked by a lone lamppost.

The afore-mentioned Mr. Tumnus is the first to spot her and he senses her import – there is a prophecy that four human children, “two sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve”, will enter Narnia and become Kings and Queens, heralding the return of the mighty savior Aslan (Liam Neeson) and driving evil away.

The whole land has come under the spell of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), an icy-warrior queen with the power to enchant the weak. Swinton, with her penetrating, angular features, shears through the landscape and shows uncanny instinct for blazing with the proper intensity while never overplaying. Edmund, who has followed Lucy into these woods, comes across the Witch and finds her promises (and the sumptuous Turkish Delight she feeds him) all too compelling.

This leads to an epic adventure that deals with betrayal, redemption, charity, sacrifice, resurrection and Christmas, and climaxes with a mighty battle with centaurs and wolves and cheetahs and giant ox generals pouring across a field with the fate of civilization the stakes. It is not an accident that this sounds Biblical, Lewis intended the tale as a kind of Christian allegory, and certain sequences will certainly be familiar. His achievement is that it does not come across as a hectoring tract or recruitment tool, but a complete and compelling story which recognizes how the Bible uses these great emotional themes to fire the imagination. Nothing wrong with using what works on an audience.

The child actors are for the most part adequate, considering their task in carrying this movie that counts as praise, and they’ve been surrounded by able adults both physically and providing the personalities of the computer-animated characters. Ray Winstone and Dawn French charm both children and audience as the earthy Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and Neeson’s patient nobility is a good match for Aslan when he finally appears.

The film’s design is philosophically different from Lord of the Rings (there’s that comparison again), in that it is not so worn and lived-in – the armor and tools and swords have more flourish to them, the makeup and costume designs favoring flair over utility. It’s a knowing fantasy, bright and, even in its harrowing moments, softly beautiful. You wouldn’t expect a tale that puts apple-cheeked teenagers at the head of armies to aim for grit.

There’s six other published Narnia books – some featuring our heroes from this chapter, others with new generations of humans thrust into these otherworldly lands. It would be an arduous task to bring them all to the screen, but perhaps the highest hill has already been climbed – they’ve struck the proper tone for adapting these works: exciting and dangerous, sad in stretches but with the confidence to have things turn out in the end, and we’re the happier for it because they didn’t skimp on the sadness. From that first conversation between Lucy and humble Mr. Tumnus, a comfortable feeling settles in – the movies have brought us to Narnia.


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