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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
Directed by Andrew Adamson
Written by C.S. Lewis (book), Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Ann Peacock
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
Principal Cast
Tilda Swinton -- Jadis, the White Witch
Georgie Henley -- Lucy
Skandar Keynes -- Edmund
Anna Popplewell -- Susan
William Moseley -- Peter
James McAvoy -- Mr. Tumnus, the faun
Jim Broadbent -- Prof. Kirk
James Cosmo -- Father Christmas
Kiran Shah -- Ginarrbrik, the dwarf
Liam Neeson (voice) -- Aslan
Ray Winstone (voice) -- Mr. Beaver
Dawn French (voice) -- Mrs. Beaver
Rupert Everett (voice) -- The Fox
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alec Worley

It has become irritatingly fashionable to bash C.S. Lewis's Narnia books (preferably with a hefty omnibus edition of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials). So much so that it's difficult to establish how much criticism may actually be deserved. All those allegations of "Christian propaganda" aimed at Lewis by Pullman and Michael Moorcock are certainly valid (not that Pullman is innocent of a religious agenda himself), but don't address the Narnia books' failure as works of fantasy. (By the way, the movie is no more and no less covertly Christian than the book. Nuff said.)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis's friend and rival, was the first to spot the problem, namely Lewis's capricious mix-and-match approach to world-building. "It really won't do," said Tolkien to Lewis's biographer Roger Lancelyn Green; Lewis, meanwhile, allegedly spoke for many a Hobbit-hater during an early reading of The Lord of the Rings. Anyway, there's a sense in Lewis's 1950 book The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the first and most cogent of the sequence, which peaked again in 1952 with The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" before descending into bitter allegory in 1956 with The Last Battle, that for all the first book's enchantment and power, Lewis never quite had a proper handle on invented myth. It's a failing writ large by this, the book's first feature film adaptation.

The movie opens in Blitz-shattered London. The Pevensie children -- Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) -- are evacuated to a rambling country mansion occupied by a lurking professor (Jim Broadbent in Dumbledore mode) and his ferocious housekeeper. During a game of hide and seek, Lucy conceals herself inside a monolithic wardrobe hidden in an empty room. She steps backwards between seemingly endless rows of fur coats that suddenly give way to cold air, pine needles and snow. As the little girl stands poised between worlds, the movie bristles for a moment with genuine wonder. Exploring this secret winter wonderland she bumps into a skittish faun named Tumnus (James McAvoy), who explains that the once-verdant land of Narnia has been frozen for the last hundred years, its inhabitants in thrall to the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), their self-proclaimed queen.

Lucy returns to her disbelieving siblings, who eventually discover the land and its strange inhabitants for themselves. Taken in by a pair of homely beavers (briskly voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French), the children learn of a prophecy declaring that should four human children ever sit on the thrones of Narnia the White Witch shall be destroyed. "But we're not heroes," whines Susan. "We're from Finchley." Nonetheless, Narnia's mysterious leonine saviour Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) is building an army to ensure the prophecy's fulfillment. But Judas -- sorry -- Edmund, Peter's oik of a younger brother, is already in cahoots with the Witch, seduced by promises of power and Turkish Delight, and whose familial betrayal may yet prove the undoing of Narnia itself.

The fourth adaptation of Lewis's book, following the black and white British TV series from 1967, Bill Melendez's fondly-remembered animated TV movie of 1979 and the BBC's wobbly but valiant series from 1988, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is as bright and crisp as morning snow, a sturdy children's picture, never dull, always pretty and quite possibly a future Christmas favourite. It's also defiantly unhip. No sign here of John Boorman's threatened update, which opened in modern-day LA and offered cheeseburgers in lieu of Turkish Delight. Next to the post-modern japery of Harry Potter and the grit and gristle of The Lord of the Rings, Witch and the Wardrobe looks as pleasingly quaint as the doilies on your grandma's sideboard. Unfortunately it suffers from a nervous (distinctly Potter-like) fidelity to an actually none-too-perfect source book. Compared to Rings, which manages the trick of investing your belief in the blood, sweat and tobacco smoke of Middle-Earth, Witch and the Wardrobe is fatally wistful, as delicate and untouchable as a snowflake. In short, it never quite makes you believe.

It's unwise to compare Witch to anything in Rings too closely (both books and films), but Witch does it anyway with its swooping New Zealand panoramas, its distant trekking across the tundra and its last-gasp battle scenes, epic stuff that sits uncomfortably alongside whimsical fairy tale bits like Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. It's an uneven tone carried over from the book, held together by some of the most shocking plot contrivances since, well, since the last Harry Potter movie. Father Christmas -- the Tom Bombadil of Narnia -- dishes out the required plot coupons for the kids to cash in later, and one hero's awful sacrifice (so terrifyingly powerful in the book, so disappointingly muted here) is glibly reverted by a bit of hitherto-unmentioned small print (a trick that should be known in the trade as "pulling a Rowling").

Director Andrew Adamson makes his live-action feature debut, having just come off the back of both Shrek movies. And it shows. He fails to coax a rounded performance from any of his actors, least of all the kids -- of whom the most appealing is Georgie Henley, whose vivid infant face is one of the most enchanting sights the movie has to offer. Tilda Swinton (half-swallowed by most of her outfits) is thoughtfully cast and looks suitably frostbitten with her blond dreadlocks, pebble-black eyes and white lashes. But the mealy-mouthed script never really brings her to life (she's more like a monument than a villain), and Swinton has to do what she can with the movie's standard line in bad-guy gloating. ("Did you really think you could destroy me?") As for the special effects, the best are those that creep up on you. Mr. Tumnus' hooves, for example, are integrated so seamlessly you may hardly notice them until halfway through the picture. Otherwise, the usual battalion of CGI effects look like the usual battalion of CGI effects. The old school animatronic beastmen by KNB and WETA, however, look awesome.

Although invigorated by a lovely Celtic score from Harry Gregson-Williams, the movie at times feels spellbound by an icy hex of its own, forbidden from doing anything other than reciting the book. It only really sparks up when it does the unthinkable and actually adapts the material for the big screen. (Adaptation? It's something event movies used to do back in the 20th century.) There's a tense new moment on a frozen waterfall cracking to bits as a pack of sardonic wolves close in on our heroes, and the movie sensibly plays out the great battle that Lewis leaves undramatised. A great bit of spectacle this, with Swinton's warrior witch charging like Boudicca across the grassy plains in a polar-bear chariot borrowed from Frank Frazetta and surrounded by a rampaging menagerie of wombats and werewolves, meercats and minotaurs. But what's with the 10-year-old schoolboy slamming into the enemy ranks like Henry V at Agincourt? And don't give me the "but it's fantasy" excuse, you know as well as I do there are subtle rules about this kind of thing, rules that Lewis, alas, seldom followed.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe nails its genre only occasionally, as in the opening shot. Here the camera bears us through clouds of darting snow, as if guiding us toward an expanse of Narnia until a squadron of Luftwaffe emerges instead. It's a rare instance of the movie actually grasping that correlation between make-believe and reality, without which fantasy is merely escapism. Later Susan correctly remarks that she and her siblings have been thrown from one war into another. Their battlefield baptism and the rewards of wisdom that follow are a preparation for the real world of air raids and ruined streets awaiting their return. Think of Dorothy returning from Oz wiser than when she went in. But the epilogue of Witch and the Wardrobe (both movie and book) denies its young heroes this victory, packing away their hard-won rewards like costumes in a toy box. It's a patronising flourish that denies the allusive power of fantasy, leaving readers and viewers entertained but profoundly empty-handed.

Copyright © 2005 Alec Worley

Freelance writer Alec Worley lives in London, England, and writes regularly for cinema magazines in the UK. His first book, Empires of the Imagination, is published by McFarland.

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