This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Studios seem eager to position the unwieldily titled The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as this year’s The Lord of the Rings: The Equally Unwieldily Titled and this is perhaps understandable given that there’s more than just the ludicrous number of characters in the titles that the films have in common. Both are set in magic-filled fantasy worlds full of weird and wonderful characters, both concern epic battles between Good and Evil, and both are based on books with legions of fans who will raise merry hell if it’s screwed up. The novels by Carl Lewis, famed American Olympic sprinter and long jumper written 11 years before he was born, have delighted kiddywinks for an unimaginable length of time, that being sixty years. Can you imagine the outcry had this gone hideously pear-shaped? As it happens, you’ll have to as it’s turned out rather well.
If you don’t know or can’t remember the story the title pretty much tells it all. Evacuated from the inconvenient Nazi blitz of London, Peter (William Moseley), Sarah (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) find themselves in The Professor (Jim Broadbent)’s country mansion. This has extensive grounds, original stained glass windows and, as the kids eventually all discover, a Wardrobe that leads to the snowy wilds of Narnia. This is stuffed to the gunwales with fauns, centaurs, dwarves, Santa Claus, hobgoblins, talking wolves and beavers and so on and so forth. It’s not a particularly happy land, what with the hundred year winter at the hands of the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) ruling the land and all. Right, who’s missing? Ah yes, the Lion, in this case Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the kind, wise, just and rightful ruler of Narnia prophesied to return when four humans show up.
Show up he does, although the inevitable battle between Good and Evil, which here can also be characterised as Pretty vs. Pretty Ugly, is beset by witting and unwitting treachery, interfamily bickering and adherence to inscrutable rules of arcane, deep magic. You either know the rest, or if you don’t wouldn’t want me to divulge the rest, so let’s halt this paragraph here.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is pretty damn good, if you ask me at any rate. Superficialities first, the effects work is for the most part flawless, with only one ropey blue/green/whatever colour they use these days screen composite looking less than seamless and the fur on one fox looking somewhat odd. These stand out mainly because the rest of the work is of such high quality, and while that doesn’t excuse it the vision and scope of everything else is so grand as to render petty nitpicking redundant.
That said, I can’t help but wonder if The Lord of the Rings has ruined us forever. The climactic battle ought, by any rational standard, by completely jaw-dropping. Colossal armies, centaurs fighting minotaurs, giants fighting ogres, fire and ice and swords and arrows … jings, by any rational standard we ought to have been overawed. As it happens, we’re just very impressed. It’s probably the most effective CG setpiece since The Lord of the Rings‘ Pelennor Fields, but we’ve now reached a tipping point where throwing more numbers and polygons at things yields little appreciable gains. We’re dangerously close to requiring imagination again, which hasn’t been a strong point cinemawise lately.
There’s more strings to Narnia‘s bow than just looking pretty. You, or at least I, can’t really fault the performances. The troupe of youngsters perform well enough, albeit without being spectacularly impressive, to vindicate their casting and as ever when child actors are involved we thank whatever entity brought into force our being here that Dakota Fanning isn’t involved. Tilda Swinton’s ice queen act pretty much steals the show, but despite a suitably gravitas laden performance Neeson doesn’t feel like Aslan, although precisely who would be better suited to voice a lion is a question I’d rather not consider.
It’s not often we get to say this, but Narnia could do with being a bit longer. Not much, mind, but there are points where it feels a little too hurried for it’s own good, such as explaining Peter’s sudden mastery of swordsmanship from an initial knowledge base of zero by a passing comment to Edmund that Aslan’s right hand centaur gave him a bit of training at some point. Still, I’m told it’s being fairly faithful to the book and at least it keeps everything hoofing along apace.
While you can read almost everything into The Lord of the Rings from the encroachment of technology into people’s lives to everyone’s favourite hoary old chestnut, man’s inhumanity to man, Narnia appears simpler. It’s about believing in your family, trusting in your friends and in yourself. Do this and not only will everything turn out alright, you’ll end up being the ruler of all the beaver in the land, even if some of that beaver is voiced by Dawn French. There’s a good deal more heart and soul in five minutes of Narnia than several hours of that other kiddy oriented eldritch outing.
So, this year’s The Lord of the Rings isn’t as good as the real The Lord of the Rings. Huge shock. That said, for something that feels so similar it comes very close, even if it’s wearing it’s influences a little too obviously on its sleeve. If I can restrain myself from said comparison for five minutes, I’d say that The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is more than strong enough to stand on it’s own merits. It’s an attractive, involving, heartwarming tale (despite it’s dark overtones, which are far, far worse than Potter’s thus far) made with obvious love and respect for the source material. It’s greatly deserving of your attention.