Chronicles of Narnia, The (2006): Two DVD Versions

There are two DVD versions of Disney’s blockbuster. The single disc edition includes commentaries by director Andrew Adamson and others ans some background info. The more elaborate two-disc version includes two featurettes, profiles of the characters and crew members, a short bio of British author C.S. Lewis, and a Narnia time line.

After making a huge splash with his animated features Shrek and Shrek 2, New Zealander Andrew Adamson makes an ambitious but not entirely satisfying leap with his big-screen adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a special-effects children’s tale that for various reasons will be compared unfavorably to the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film series.

Though impressive in scale, thematically, The Lion lacks the moral gravity and depth of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings. Artistically, too, The Lion falls short of Jackson’s trilogy, even though the film was made by some of the same special effects team. The Lion shares one thing in common with the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and movies: It’s a tale about children and for children. No doubt, adult viewers and parents will enjoy the saga, but in sensibility, The Lion operates in the realm of children fantasy fare. Rowling hersled has cited Chronicles of Narnia as one of the inspirations to her own contemporary stories of magic and adventure.

Like those movies, Disney hopes to launch a new franchise out of the seven-volume series, published by the Irish-born, Oxford-educated scholar, critic and writer Lewis in the 1950s. The Chronicles of Narnia series includes Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Last Battle. Along with a few other books, such as Lewis friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, The Lion became the equivalent of a foundational twentieth century fable.

Lewis book, first published in 1950 (exactly a year before Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) has seen many incarnations in stage versions, as a British TV series, as an animated film, and even in a BBC version created with puppets. Nonetheless, no one attempted to bring Lewis’s land of Narnia to life with real actors and sets, either because the project seemed too overwhelming, or because the right technology was not available to match Lewis’s far-reaching imagination

Lewis set out to write a series of fantasy tales for children, but his creation turned out to be much larger and grander than even he had foreseen. At the time, critics were impressed with Lewis’s rare ability to forge a completely believable imaginary world, one with its own history, geography, culture and myths that nevertheless reflected the struggles, hopes and moral dilemmas of his own post WWII world.

The Lion is still better known and read in the U.K., where it’s considered a timeless adventure with equal fascination to grade-schoolers, grown-up readers, and even literary scholars, intrigued by its metaphors and spiritual allegories. Over the years, The Lion has developed an enduring worldwide readership and has become a staple of family libraries. Taking the publishing industry by storm, the books have sold over 85 million books in 29 different languages, making it second only to Rowling’s Harry Potter tomes as the most popular book series ever.

The screenplay, co-written by Adamson with Emmy Award-winners Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, centers on the four Pevensie children, as they discover, one by one, that a mysterious old wardrobe door is a portal into a fantasy land. The focus, particularly in the first half, on four real people, rather than creatures and effects, lends the story a strong human perspective that helps to balance the increasing reliance on fantasy in the second half.

The differences between The Lion and Lord of the Rings become clear in the first reel, when we are introduced to the family members. Adamson’s decision to distinguish among the four siblings by endowing each one with a different personality and arc, even though all four go through similar odyssey once in Narnia, proves important. Peter (William Moseley), the eldest Pevensie kid, leaves London a child and at the end emerges as a brave grown-up leader, a real warrior fighting for the forces of good.

The beautiful, down-to-earth elder daughter, Susan (Anna Popplewell), plays the least thankful role, the voice of reason, the sensible sister who always tries to be responsible during the journey. Nonetheless, like the others, Susan too goes through a transformation, from an adolescent thinking she’s too grown up to believe in magic to one completely seduced by it.

Young Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the most boisterous and mischievous of the Pevensies, plays the most interesting part, particularly after he finds himself tempted to join forces with the White Witch. A good deal of the plot revolves around Edmund, first in the separation from his siblings, and then in the collective effort to rescue him.

The youngest, most optimistic of the quartet is Lucy (Georgie Henlie), a cute yet brave openhearted girl, who’s the first to cross the wardrobe into the fantasyland. The first non-human Lucy encounters is Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), the shy, retiring faun, the half-man half-goat who befriends her but is forced to serve the evil plans of the White Witch. Author Lewis had said that his inspiration began with the image of “a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood,” which indeed serves as the movie’s first truly magical shot.

No fairy tale is complete without a good hero and even better villain. In The Lion, the villain is Jadis (Tilda Swinton), the seemingly invincible White Witch who has cursed the one-time paradise to endure an eternal winter. Well-cast, Swinton plays with relish the nefarious, chilly role, avoiding movie cliches of portraying witches, such as the cartoonish and crackling Cruella De Ville (Glenn Close) in Disney’s Dalmatians movies. Vindictive and abusive, Jadis is give some brutal scenes, and the one in which she smacks Edmund across the face will register strongly among children.

Perhaps the film’s shrewdest piece of casting is getting the naturally heroic Liam Neeson to voice Aslan, the Lion who’s Jadis’s greatest villain. The wise and majestic lion, who once served as high king of the land, serves as the tale’s emotional and moral center. Endowed with charisma and authority, Aslan is all-powerful and all knowing, yet still has a very human vulnerability. Marked by depth and resonance, warmth and compassion, Neeson’s voice is perfect for the role.

Unlike speaking animals in other fantasies (Babe), Aslan speaks in a natural, organic manner (which meant mapping the movement of his speech unto the whole musculature of the animal, not just his mouth). The scene in which Lucy nuzzles up to Aslan bears tremendous emotional power and will stir young children, leaving them with both their eyes and mouths wide-open.

The film’s two adults, Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent), whose country house has the magical wardrobe, and Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthornea), his caretaker, appear in the beginning and intermittently throughout the saga, but ultimately don’t have much to do.

Unlike Tolkien, who was very specific, Lewis left a lot to the reader’s imagination. Hence, Adamson’s challenge was not only to create Narnia, but also to try fulfilling people’s expectations, to bring the film up to the level of their own dreams. Since The Lion has taken millions of minds into realms of fantasy, the enormous challenge was to recreate those worlds in a way that might live up to and even exceed people’s imagination so that they’re transported to another time and place. Technology-wise, the film couldn’t have been produced five years ago. Adamson has said that he couldn’t have made a photo-realistic lion like Aslan, or joined animal legs unto a human body as realistically as he and his team did with centaurs and minotaurs.

In his film, Adamson doesn’t perceive Narnia as just a figment of the children’s imagination, a place they retreat to in their minds to escape the horrors of World War II. In his conception, Narnia is not like The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan, where we realize in the end that the story happened in someone’s imagination. Instead, Adamson creates Narnia as a true alternate universe, using all his resources to show that, when Lucy goes through that wardrobe, the world she enters is completely believable as another country, a whole Narnian reality unto itself.

Though exploring themes of betrayal, forgiveness, and loyalty, The Lion is basically a yarn about a family that feels disempowered by the terror of World War II. The four siblings enter a land where they’re not only empowered, but where they’re ultimately the only solution to the war in that land. And it’s only through unity as a family that they can actually triumph.

The film was shot entirely in chronological order, so that with each new scene, the young actors deeper into their characters and further into the discovery of Narnia. This strategy, which is logistically a nightmare and thus seldom used, helped to create a strong family dynamics and unity among the quartet of children.

In forging Lewis’ fantasy land, Adamson collaborated with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine, production designer Roger Ford, costume designer Isis Mussenden, editors Sim Evan-Jones and Jim May, and composer Harry Gregson-Williams. The film benefits immensely from the supervision of visual effects expert Dean Wright, and Oscar-winning visualist Richard Taylor, who had worked on Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The film’s ideas are sparked directly by Lewis’s endlessly imaginative frame. All the themes and messages in Lewis’s book are evident in the movie, which is quite a faithful envisioning of the author’s vision. The Lion tries to be both an epic story of a battle between good and evil, and an intimate drama about a fractured family that needs to mend itself.

Nonetheless, with all the admiration for the technology, the elements that constitute The Lion as a movie, human characters, photo-realist creatures, practical effects, and digital wizardry, represent a sophisticated yet not entirely successful or coherent mix.

Postcript

For those interested in knowing more about Lewis’ personal life, in addition to several good biographies about him, in 1985, Norman Stone directed the UK film Shadowlands, about the late-in-life romance between Lewis and Joy Gresham (played by Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom), and in 1993, Richard Attenborough remade that picture, also named Shadowlands, in Hollywood with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger in the leads.