Once every few years, a movie comes along that leaves me in a complete quandary. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe is one of them. The first installment in a planned series of films based on the works of C.S. Lewis, Narnia has elements that I really cherish. It also has elements that seriously let me down. In some ways it is a very good picture, yet it also should have been better than it is.
As an elementary student, I either read the book or saw an old TV version of “The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe” in school every year. It was never my favorite story, but then again I wasn’t wild about anything that didn’t have the words “star” and “wars” in the title. As an adult, I am more compelled by the tale of the Pevensie family. Father is off fighting WWII and Mother sends her four children to live in the country where they will be safe from air raids and bombings.
In the stately manor of Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent), the children play a game of hide-and-seek. Little Lucy (Georgie Henley), the youngest, hides in a large wardrobe that sits inside an empty room. Making her way towards its rear, she discovers an entryway to the kingdom of Narnia, where the evil Ice Witch (Tilda Swinton) is usurping power and freezing anyone who opposes her. Lucy eventually brings her siblings – Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Peter (William Moseley) - to Narnia as well. Edmund falls under the Ice Witch’s spell and disappears into her castle. The others must save him before they can leave.
The children meet a couple of talking beavers who tell them about an ancient prophesy. In it, two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve will arrive in Narnia to end tyranny with the help of a lion (the legitimate ruler of Narnia) named Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson). The Pevensie kids set out to find Aslan, who helps them prepare to do battle. Fans of the original novel know what happens, but for those who may not be familiar with the material, I’ll let certain things remain unspoken here.
What I love about The Chronicles of Narnia is the way it mixes humans and beasts. Cutting-edge CGI effects have allowed the humans to interact believably with the animal characters. Sometimes computer-generated characters don’t seem like they’re really there (because, in fact, they aren’t). In this case, Aslan and the beavers actually seem to be occupying the same space as the children, which makes their presence in the story much stronger.
The visual design is impressive too. There’s no doubt that this is a beautiful film to look at. As good begins to triumph over evil, the frozen parts of Narnia thaw out, revealing a hidden majesty. It’s a very cool effect that, in part, leads to an exciting sequence in which the children do battle with wolves on a melting river of ice.
Performance-wise, Tilda Swinton is perfect as the Ice Witch. The actress’s ethereal physical features are well used for the part. Of the children, Georgie Henley does the best job bringing her character to life (the other young actors are a tad stiff). And Liam Neeson is appropriately stately as Aslan.
This is all good stuff, but not everything matches up. I am often asked if I approach movies as a “critic” or as a regular moviegoer. My answer is always the same: I’m a moviegoer while I’m watching a film, and a critic once I’m in front of my computer. There’s no preconceived notion on my part about what a movie must be in order for me to recommend it. I sit down and either have a good time or do not; the critic part of me kicks in later when I’m trying to analyze the response I had.
I tell you this now because my gripe with The Chronicles of Narnia is going to sound very critic-y. I thought that the film had shifts in tone that just didn’t work well together. It starts off being a sweet, magical fantasy with the children discovering the amazing new world. So far, so good. The middle section is more of an adventure, with the children meeting talking animals and facing some of Narnia’s hazards. Still good. The final section is a great big special effects-laden action extravaganza. Oops.
The last third of the film seems like it’s being forced into a genre it was never meant to inhabit: that of the non-stop action spectacular. You can feel The Chronicles of Narnia trying too hard to be the Next Big Thing. What begins as a quiet, subtle fantasy eventually gives way to massive Lord of the Rings-style battle sequences. While admittedly dazzling to look at, they cross the border into overkill. The meaning of the story (which is significant) gets lost amidst the barrage of special effects. The loss is easy to miss because the non-stop action can easily distract one from it. To be fair, I suspect that a lot of audience members will not care. They will get caught up in the action and be sufficiently entertained. My criticism is bound to be a lonely one. Nevertheless, I argue that The Chronicles of Narnia would have been just as good – probably even better – had it been a little more subtle in its final third. The simple elegance of C.S. Lewis’s story has been overshadowed by the film’s desire to be a franchise-creating blockbuster.
This is not necessarily a fatal flaw for the already-planned follow-ups. I had the same complaint about the first Harry Potter movie. The Potter sequels overcame that flaw and went on to become a series that grows more compelling with each installment. There’s no reason to think that the next Narnia picture can’t broaden and deepen as well.
Lewis was a writer whose work had Christian themes, and Aslan is often interpreted to be a Christ-like figure. What he does – and what happens as a result – is the heart and soul of the story. All of that is depicted on screen, yet somehow it doesn’t register as strongly as it should. That is ultimately why I’m mixed on The Chronicles of Narnia. Like I said at the top, there are some things here that I cherish as a moviegoer. Those things are all on the surface, though. In terms of being a powerful, thoughtful piece of work, the film is ultimately an example of the old adage that less is more.
( 1/2 out of four)
Note to parents: Although it comes with a family-friendly PG rating, The Chronicles of Narnia is borderline PG-13. There are plenty of scenes here that could be frightening for very young children.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe is rated PG for battle sequences and frightening moments. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
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