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

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

The Nazi Blitzkrieg rages over London and the Pevensie children – Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) – like many, are being shipped to the country for safety. The kids arrive at the manor of solitary Professor Kirk (Jim Broadbent), an old bachelor under the attentive care of his housekeeper, Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne). Bad weather keeps the children inside, bored, and Lucy convinces her older brothers and sister to play a game of hide and seek. She finds a near empty room with an old wardrobe at one end and decides to hide there. This begins the magic of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

C.S. Lewis’s classic seven book series began in 1949 with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a truly wonderful story of magic, bravery and courage that centers on the Pevensie kids and their adventures in the enchanted Kingdom of Narnia. It all starts when little Lucy, hiding in the title wardrobe, burrows through its stored fur coats only to tumble into a winter land. As she wonders what the heck is going on she is startled by the sudden appearance of a visitor, a package-laden faun named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy).

Mr. Tumnus is equally startled when he realizes that Lucy is something only seen in Narnian legend and prophecy – a human being. He is also troubled by Lucy’s arrival as the wicked Queen (Tilda Swinton) has ordered all Narnians to turn over to her any humans they come across. But, in their short time together, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus become good friends and he leads her back to the wardrobe and to safety. When she emerges in the empty room Lucy excitedly runs off to explain to her siblings why she was gone for hours and hours. But, to her confused brothers and sister she has been gone for mere moments.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” slowly, almost casually, builds as the rest of the Pevensie children enter the wardrobe and their adventure begins. They are, they learn, to save Narnia from the clutches and control of the evil Queen, who is a powerful witch. This wonderful children’s fairytale joins the Pevensies with the powerful lion, Aslan (Liam Neeson), who leads the good animals of the land against the wicked witch and her terrible minions. The slow build pays off in the climatic battle between the forces of good and evil.

The Chronicles…” may not be suitable for the very young. While it isn’t quite as scary as the monsters in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it has its share of frightening creatures. Little kids familiar with the books probably won’t mind but the non-initiated may have nightmares. Bigger kids, from six to 60, will have a great time.

Shrek” franchise director Andrew Adamson leads the effort and he, his cast (live and voice actors, both) and crew do a marvelous job in breathing silver screen life into this classic fantasy work. Paying thoughtful attention to the story, its many characters and the magical land, the filmmakers make this a true movie for (nearly) all ages.

Special effects dominate much of “The Chronicles of Narnia” as we meet all sorts of magical creatures from half man/half goat fawns, unicorns, centaurs and Cyclopes to talking beavers and, of course, brave Aslan the Lion. The clashing armies of good and evil doesn’t have the sheer scope of “The Lord of the Rings” but I enjoyed watching “The Chronicles of Narnia” action more.

The Pevensie kids are the key to much of the charm of The Chronicles of Narnia.” Leading the quartet is little Georgie Henley as Lucy. The newcomer has a nice screen presence and strength of character to hold her own against the older players and the copious F/X. Skandar Keyes gives his Edmund dark shading as he almost ruins the chances of good to triumph over evil. William Moseley plays the eldest, Peter, saddled with the responsibility to watch out for his younger siblings. Anna Popplewell, as Susan, is serviceable but the least significant of the Pevensie children. Her character does flesh out in subsequent chronicles.

The rest of the film’s numerous characters are well led by Tilda Swinton, giving palpable coldness and cruelty to her wicked Queen, and Liam Leeson gives Aslan’s voice an appropriate regal tone and power. Ray Winstone gets a load of funny one-liners as Mr. Beaver. James McAvoy is excellent as Mr. Tumnus. Other vocal talents help flush out the background to more than just action effects.

Techs are first rate with just enough of a stop motion look to give a tip of the hat to animation meister Ray Harryhausen. The imaginative magical critters and their voicing are deftly handled all around. The titan battle scene at the climax is shot (by veteran lenser Donald. M. McAlpine) and edited (by Sim Evans-Joans and Jim May) in exciting, fast action as the Pevensie kids and their allies fight for their lives against the Queen and her wicked followers.

I was less than thrilled with the prospect, after seeing the film’s mediocre trailer, of spending two plus hours with “The Chronicles of Narnia.” But, boy, am I glad I did. This is holiday fare at its best and will resonate well into home video, especially for C.S. Lewis fans. I hope the filmmakers continue to mine the rest of the Chronicles (with the same care and detail). I give it an A-.

After surviving several bombing attacks during London's Blitz, Mrs. Pevensie (Judy McIntosh, "Kingpin") entrusts her eldest, Peter (William Moseley, a John-Boy Walton by way of the von Trapp family type), with the care of his three younger siblings as she sends them off to safer ground in the English countryside.  They're taken in by a bachelor professor (Jim Broadbent, "Robots") who lives on a huge estate just perfect for games of hide and seek. Looking for a hiding spot, the youngest Pevensie, Lucy (Georgie Henley) finds more than she bargained for when the back of a wardrobe opens into another world in the first book of the classic C.S. Lewis series, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Cowriter (with Ann Peacock and "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely)/director Andrew Adamson ("Shrek," "Shrek 2") takes something old and makes it new again with this glorious adaptation of the well-loved children's tale. There is no mistaking author Lewis's allegory - in fact, this could be considered Disney's bloodless version of "The Passion" - but couching these lessons of sacrifice and forgiveness in a magical world where animals talk and fauns frolic was an inspired way to appeal to the child in all of us.  This second Brit kid lit special effects extravaganza of the holiday season should be no less a must-see than Harry and hopefully, like that series, will see all seven of its books brought to the big screen.

It's the second eldest Pevensie, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), who provides the internal drama which will play out in Narnia.  While little Lucy is lucky enough to encounter Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy, "Rory O'Shea Was Here"), a faun brave enough to hide her from the White Witch (Tilda Swinton, in quite the reverse from "Constantine's" Angel Gabriel), Edmund runs into the fearsome lady herself and promises to deliver his siblings to her distant castle.  Edmund also refuses to confirm Lucy's story about the wardrobe, but before too long, the portal to Narnia opens for all four, because it is all four who are prophesied to go into battle with the majestic lion Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson, "Kingdom of Heaven") and defeat the Witch's evil reign of constant winter.  When the Pevensies are brought home by a beaver (Ray Winstone, "King Arthur"), Edmund spies the castle in the distance and skulks off in quest of more of the Turkish Delight the witch can conjure up and he betrays Peter, Susan (Anna Popplewell, "Girl with a Pearl Earring") and Lucy's whereabouts as well as Mr. Tumnus's defiant act.  Pursued by the witch's wolves, the three Pevensies and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Dawn French, comedy partner of "Absolutely Fabulous's" Jennifer Saunders) make their way towards Aslan's camp, receiving gifts from Father Christmas (James Cosmo, "Troy") during their journey that will aid them on the battlefield.  But on the eve of the fight that will determine Narnia's fate, Aslan makes the ultimate sacrifice to pay for Edmund's sins and it is up to Peter to lead Aslan's troops and defeat the black hordes of the White Witch.

Visual effects supervisor Dean Wright ("The Lord of the Rings") led a huge team to produce amazingly realistic looking and expressive talking animals with computer imagery and blended those digital effects with make up prosthetics so that actors' torsos would sit believably atop the bodies of goats and horses.  Mr. Tumnus is simply one of the most jaw-dropping cinematic creatures invented yet, a stunning mix of filmmaking wizardry and McAvoy's soulful and physical thesping.  Aslan looks like a humanized lion and Neeson completes the character with terrific vocal work.  Also beautifully realized are those beavers, full of character and a fox of surprising nature voiced by Rupert Everett ("Separate Lies").  Playing Edmund's steed, producer Philip Steuer gets a lot of mileage just announcing his name.  The kids, the result of a two-year casting process and 2,000 interviews, couldn't be more perfect for their roles, with young Henly providing the heart of the piece.  Swinton is cold as ice, a shrewd manipulator devoid of soul.  In smaller roles, Elizabeth Hawthorne ("The Frighteners") and Broadbent are the semi-strict housekeeper Mrs. MacReady and the fussed over professor with the boyish temperament who sits in for the storyteller himself.

Adamson and production designer Roger Ford ("Peter Pan") have created a much brighter, more beautiful place than the earthy "Lord of the Rings" terrain, where, like "The Wizard of Oz's" switch from black and white to color, warms from the crystalline twinkling of snow and ice to lush, sunny grassy greens.  Cinematographer Don McAlpine ("Peter Pan") makes this manufactured land feel organic, with the story's iconic gas lantern glowing in the snow like the warmest holiday greeting.  Isis Mussenden's ("Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights") costuming is beautiful, not only for the extravagant dressing of the Witch, but in the simple yet evocative WWII period clothing of the children.

War torn Europe fueled not only this classic tale of good and evil, but also J.J.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but Adamson's "Narnia" is possessed of more of an innocence and sense of wonder that the latter "Rings" films which may prove a better tonic for the bruised sensibilities of today's terrorism laden landscape.    And while "Narnia" is sure to be the subject of backlash for its overt Christian allegory, perhaps even being branded as a 'Red State' film, I would ask what's so bad about teaching goodness, a quality which should transcend both religion and politics?

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