Saturday, December 10, 2005

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

After taking successful trips to Middle Earth and Hogwarts, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood realised that the magical land of Narnia might be a profitable place to visit. Walt Disney Pictures have taken the plunge but they haven‘t committed themselves to all seven of the books, waiting instead to see how their adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe fares. Under the guidance of Shrek director Andrew Adamson, the big-screen version of this much-loved tale is an effects-laden fantasy reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. However; despite a couple of strong performances and some effective moments, the film struggles to achieve the epic status it so dearly hopes to attain and never comes close to matching the verve and conviction of Peter Jackson’s trilogy.

CS Lewis famously dreaded seeing his work adapted for the screen, and he may have had mixed feelings about the way Adamson and his team of screenwriters have gone about it. The screenplay is broadly similar to the novel but a few extra sequences have been tacked on in order to pad the rather thin narrative out to feature length (although one could justifiably quibble about the necessity for a running time of 140 minutes). One of those new additions opens the film, introducing us to the Pevensie family as they cower from German bombers in Blitz-ravaged London. The four children - Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) - are soon evacuated out of the city to the mansion of an elderly professor (Jim Broadbent), but they find little fun available with the cranky housekeeper permanently on their case.

In an effort to pass the time the children play a game of hide-and-seek during which Lucy takes refuge in an enormous old cupboard and stumbles into a wintry land known as Narnia. After taking tea with a faun named Mr Tumnus (James McCavoy), Lucy races home to amaze her siblings with her story - a story which unsurprisingly produces a sceptical reaction. However, the four children eventually find their way into Narnia and are surprised to find that they are there for a reason; not only have they stumbled straight into the middle of a Christian allegory but - perhaps more pertinently - a prophecy has foretold that two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve would arrive to save Narnia from the hundred year winter imposed by the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

The Lord of the Rings has set the benchmark pretty high for this kind of film and comparisons do The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe no favours at all. However, even when examined on its own merits the film can be described as little more than a respectable adaptation; a decent, competently assembled fantasy film which errs on the side of safety at all times and lacks anything to make it truly special.

Adamson begins his first live-action film in promising fashion. The early scenes are atmospheric and nicely paced and Lucy’s first entry into Narnia is a delight, as it should be. The director is helped in no small part by Georgie Henley’s adorable performance as Lucy. In her screen debut the ten year-old radiates innocence and a genuine sense of wonder throughout the film. Her emotions feel real and unforced and her tremendously natural display is by some distance the film’s best (she certainly outstrips the bland portrayals of Peter and Edmund). In fact the film’s best sequences occur in this early passage when Henley meets another of the most endearing characters, Mr Tumnus, who is played with sensitivity and charm by James McCavoy. These scenes have sweetness and honesty which is lost among the larger-scale events later on.

Among the adult cast Tilda Swinton is a smart choice to play The White Witch and she gives an enjoyably twisted performance, growing increasingly comfortable in the role the longer the film continues. Ray Winstone and Dawn French find just the right level of comedy as a pair of bickering cockney beavers while the voice of Aslan is provided by Liam Neeson. Neeson has a great voice but I’m not sure it really fit the character, as it lacked the resonance I felt the role required.

After an interesting, if unspectacular, opening half the cracks in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begin to appear when The White Witch declares war on Aslan, and the film has to try and deliver an epic fantasy battle without seeming like a Lord of the Rings retread. New Zealand is again standing in for a mythical land here and once more we are bombarded with endless sweeping vistas of the wonderful scenery; but while Peter Jackson gave the story enough gravity to back up the surface prettiness, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe feels unnaturally stretched and the pacing often has a flurry of activity followed by long periods bereft of drama. Donald McAlpine’s cinematography ensures the film looks stunning throughout but Adamson lacks any genuine spark in his direction, his framing is predictable and he fails to inject a sense of urgency into the chase or action sequences. A scene on a frozen waterfall (an addition to the book) is badly fudged and the climactic battle sequence goes on forever. Adamson’s over-reliance on slow-motion coupled with the occasionally shoddy CGI work makes the bloodless and passionless final encounter an insipid affair.

Then there’s the question of the film’s rather obvious religious overtones. Disney clearly see this as an opportunity to rake in the Christian dollar in the US but the imagery is thankfully not overdone. Of course, with its central themes of self-sacrifice, resurrection and ascension; the onus placed on faith throughout and the lessons of betrayal and redemption; the allegory is not hard to spot but, if anything, the filmmakers have chosen to underplay these scenes at every opportunity. This has the unfortunate effect of making the major scene of Aslan on the stone table being less involving than it should be but it’s still a relief that Adamson chose to play the allegorical side of the film at such a subdued level.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ends up being nothing more than an average fantasy film which withers in the imposing shadow cast by Jackson’s trilogy. The film may well be a box-office success but it lacks anything truly memorable to make it stick in the mind and I’m not sure it will encourage further adaptations of the Narnia series. Adamson has done his best with the material but his lack of a unique vision for the project means that this is a fantasy severely lacking in any sense of magic. At the end of the day what prevents the film from being a failure is the strength of the source material itself which manages to shine through. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is still a cracking story, it’s just a shame one can find so many faults with this rendition.