Tuesday, November 28, 2006

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


A Pitch-Perfect Fantasy Fable

There are some books that are almost required reading as a kid. I don’t know where this magical list comes from or who writes it, but it seems that certain works of fiction permeate our lives at a very young age. Whether our teachers read to us, or we pick it up ourselves (maybe so we can talk to our friends about it), some youth fiction is just a given. Such is the case with C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most well known of his fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.

Aptly titled, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is the most recent adaptation of this well-known story. I remember seeing an animated version once (1979) as well as the BBC version (1988), and have positive memories of both. This newest update gives us state-of-the-art special effects (using a reported $180 million budget) and an epic scope never seen before. I had high hopes for this movie, but I was cautious and prepared myself for a letdown. I shouldn’t have.

During the London Blitz of World War II, the four Pevensie children are sent far into the country and out of harm’s way to stay with an eccentric relative. Their new home is a huge house with many rooms and a strict set of rules. During a game of hide and seek, youngest sister Lucy (Georgie Henly) hides in an antique wardrobe and discovers the back of the old closet is actually the front of an impossible world known as Narnia. When she returns (with no loss of time) her siblings discount her experience as the imaginings of a young child. When all the kids are forced to hide in the wardrobe after breaking a window, they all become believers, and discover they are not strangers to this strange place, but pivotal figures.

I have said before that I am not a fan of fantasy films, but this movie is going to make me eat crow. Narnia is simply a wonderful film, a magical tale that is so lavish in story and visuals, and has a heart so big that you’d have to be made of stone not to be affected by it.

Much of the credit goes to the screenplay (by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), which nicely adapts Lewis’ story, and effectively fleshes out all the main cast (not to mention the minor characters). It’s well paced, exciting, and nothing ever feels padded or unnecessary. I also enjoyed some of the humorous dialogue which I know came from the minds of the writers and not Lewis.

The kids in this movie are absolutely great, and are perfectly cast. They are appropriately British, and are completely convincing (especially the radiant, scene-stealing Henly). They all get three dimensions and really develop as characters. We in the audience have no choice but to invest in their lives and hope they all survive.

The other major players in this story are more black and white, good and evil. They are Aslan, the Lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) and the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). Aslan is a beautifully rendered CGI creation, and he is magnificent. He moves like a real animal, and his mane flows in the wind. His eyes are wonderfully expressive, especially in one shot when Lucy realizes all might not be well in Narnia just yet. No less credit should be given to Neeson, who gives Aslan real depth and emotion.

Swinton (Orlando, The Deep End) makes an excellent villain, and her towering, icy presence is the focus of every scene she inhabits. She also plays the Witch as an almost alluring, motherly figure who doesn’t like to be trifled with. She is tender to the rebellious Edmund (Skandar Keynes) one minute, and coldly executing her enemies the next. There is also a surprising warrior side to her character, as she doesn’t just command her troops in the climactic battle, but is one of them.

This is a fantastic looking movie, with nearly flawless effects work. All the mythical creatures are spectacular (I really liked the gryphons) and the combination of breathtaking cinematography and computer imagery is seamless. The final battle scenes are really impressive, with thousands of imaginary creatures attacking each other en masse.

Narnia marks the live action directorial debut of Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2), which may explain why the computer animation works so well. Admittedly, some of the CGI characters looked a bit cartoony, but I didn’t care. Adamson had me under his spell.

Something else that works is the subtext which was inherent in the original story. It’s no secret that Lewis was a devout Christian, and many of his works are rife with religious parallels, this one being no different. I enjoyed seeing this as an adult and being able to spot many of them (some are very obvious) that I was clueless about as a kid. If this bothers you, it shouldn’t, no more than Neo’s messiah-like character in The Matrix would. It’s just one way of effectively telling a meaningful story.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is so good that it raises the bar to what every fantasy film should be--utterly fantastic.

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