As a fifth grader, C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was one of my favorite books, its initial premise of an ordinary-looking wardrobe that lead to a land of magical creatures and talking animals one that opened up my young imagination in a way nothing else quite had before. Although I read the book a few times, it was the first few chapters that I would return to most often. The introduction to the four Pevensie siblings and the first trip to the snowy landscape of Narnia by the younger Pevensie sister, Lucy, held both a sense of wonderment and an eerie feeling of the unknown that was irresistible to this ten-year-old.
Having not read the enduring C.S. Lewis classic in close to fifteen years, those fond childhood memories had begun to haze over until seeing the long-awaited film adaptation, the longwindedly titled "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." For a decidedly very faithful big-screen adaptation, director Andrew Adamson (2004's "Shrek 2
") has gotten things about as right as can be, from the practically flawless casting, to the bewitching storytelling that instantly draws one in, to the impressive visual effects and production scope that helps immeasurably in bringing the beautiful, troubled land of Narnia to life. Some of the computer-generated effects work is seamless, while other solitary shots aren't as plausible, but they all do their job with a sophisticated diversity that compliments the movie's balancing act of family-oriented fantasy elements with more mature, serious themes.
With their father away at battle and their mother fearful of the threat posed at home, the four Pevensie childrenin descending age, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley)are shipped off to escape the dangers of World War II. Their destination happens to be a mansion in the English countryside, lived in by Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent), a sort-of guardian who sticks to himself and is rarely seen. One day while the four children are playing a game of hide-and-seek, little Lucy comes upon a wardrobe covered up by a sheet. Once hidden inside, she discovers that there is no back to it; beyond a sea of winter coats and attire is a snow-covered land that she learns from kindly half-man/half-fawn Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) is called Narnia.
After returning to the real worldher overnight stay in Narnia turns out to have been mere seconds in EnglandLucy has soon led Edmund, and later Peter and Susan, through the fantastical realm of the wardrobe. What starts as something of a children's wildest dream quickly becomes a danger-filled nightmare when Edmund ends up in the clutches of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), a cruel, powerful murderess whose wish to be queen over the land has turned Narnia into a frozen place of constant winter and no Christmases. All leads to a showdown of good vs. evil, with the human Pevensie children seeking the guidance lion messiah Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) and ultimately gaining the courage to lead the fight for Narnia's safety over the White Witch.
In staying true to C.S. Lewis' original workonly a few action scenes have been added to pep things up, including a chase between the kids and a pack of wolves over a melting ice pondwriter-director Andrew Adamson and co-screenwriters Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have kept the same major flaw that struck the written work. While an exciting, enriching, valuable literary work, it has always been my opinion that the first half of the story is superior to the second. The setup is bold and expansive, suggesting the endless possibilities that the mystical world of Narnia hold (indeed, there were seven books in Lewis' "Chronicles"), but the payoff mildly disappoints with predictable plotting that doesn't do full justice to the originality of the first act.
Thus, the film, seems to start spinning its wheels by the 90-minute mark with another forty-five minutes to go. That is not to say that the picture ever dips below being a wholly respectable and entertaining ride, only that there could have been more exploration into the sibling relationships and their adventures in Narnia beyond a swords-and-armor-and-creature battle that pales next to a similar one in 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
." As for the none-too-subtle allusions to Christian belief and the unavoidable comparison between Jesus' and Aslan's journey toward self-sacrifice in the name of saving his people, this element does not get in the way of one's involvement in the filmif anything, it adds substance and dimension to the talebut does call attention to itself like a lit-up neon sign during a blackout.
The achievements of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" greatly outweighs the missteps. Reminding of 1985's underrated gem "Return to Oz," which was a grotesque horror film wrapped up in a Disney label and PG rating, this picture, too, is unafraid to deal with life-and-death struggles and a creepily palpable dread that looms over the unforgettable villain that is the White Witch and her ugly minions. There is not a drop of blood to be found on the screen, but director Andrew Adamson's devotion to the source material deserves applauding, never shying away from such things as mortality, child endangerment and abuse, and rough scenes of combat. It helps to realize, of course, that like all children's stories a happy ending is inevitable, and the thematic elements present within the plot are never exploitative and always necessary to make a point.
Tilda Swinton (2005's "Constantine
"), perhaps modern cinema's finest actor when it comes to playing villains, is mesmerizing in a scary, lingering way as the White Witch. At once psychotic and seductive as she tries to lure Edmund into her lair with the promise of Turkish Delight (she really wants to kill him and his siblings), Swinton's take on the White Witch is far from fun and games. Her villainy is a serious matterthere isn't a hint of a wink or a nudge to relieve the White Witch's devious plansand Swinton gives one of the year's most unforgettable performances as she claws with relish into the part.
Just as brilliantly cast is newcomer Georgie Henley, who looks and acts as if she was born to play the role of the wide-eyed Lucy. Henley has a great face with character to it; she's adorable, but not in a conventional child star kind of way, and the complexity that Henley brings to the part is a treat to watch happen in front of the camera. Lucy is asked too many times near the end to cry, which eventually becomes repetitive, but Henley is so good at playing these difficult emotions that it hardly matters. The other three filling out the rest of the Pevensie clanfirst-timers Skandar Keynes as Edmund and William Moseley as Peter, and Anna Popplewell (2003's "Girl with the Pearl Earring") as the sensible Susangive the three teens from the "Harry Potter
" franchise a run for their money in the acting department, while Shia LaBeouf look-alike James McAvoy (2004's "Wimbledon
") is spot-on as the kindly fawn, Mr. Tumnus.
"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is yet another grandly successful fantasy targeted at all ages that cements how far today's technology has come in allowing Hollywood to bring to life books and stories that twenty years ago would have either looked cheesy on film or been impossible to pull off. All of the visuals in the world would mean little, however, if there wasn't a soul to go along with it, and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" finds that crucial piece of the puzzle in the wide-eyed innocence and steadfast determination of Lucy Pevensie. In her never-give-up attitude, in her resiliency, in her moments of vulnerability, in her truthful bond with her siblings, and in her bittersweet childhood wonder, she is a heroine to latch onto, care about, and admire. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is a quality motion picture of invigorating vision, even when going for obviousness over subtlety. If this is a sign of things to come, then the remaining six adventures in Narnia (if they ever see cinematic life) are worth eagerly anticipating.