26 December 2005
current cinema: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
starring: Georgie Henley, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, and Jim Broadbent
written by: Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, from the novel by C.S. Lewis
directed by: Andrew Adamson
PG, 140 min, 2005, USA
C.S. Lewis, that iconic pipe-smoking professor and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, found his magical universe not in some mythical place that suggests a time long ago, but rather in an unused spare room containing nothing but an old wardrobe full of fur coats. The premise, if you've been locked away without any contact with the outside world, is simply that a young child can find in the back of a wardrobe an entire world where it is always winter and never Christmas and where fauns and beavers live under fear of an oppressive regime personified in a White Witch (Tilda Swinton) and where a gentle lion can save the day. It is, to be sure, an idea filled with magic and whimsy, at the same time adorable and foreboding. The novels, full of wonder, are beloved classics, but will the same be said of the film adaptations? It may just depend on the worldview of who you ask.
It is no small mystery that the books exist primarily as a Judeo-Christian allegory, with Aslan filling in for Christ as he sacrifices himself and rises again. The Biblical imagery is all over the place. The White Which is likely Satan, hell-bent on devouring all of Narnia. So far she's done a good job, but when Aslan begins to make his promised return, her grip loosens and the lion wins the day. The film adaptation, released by Disney, retains all of the allegory (even adding some) while cleaning up the books for a PG rating. One of Lewis' themes was that good characters smoke pipes and bad characters do not, but under the Disney flag the only character who smokes is the Professor (Jim Broadbent). I'm guessing this is a change to reflect the changes in public opinion toward smoking, but the film is a period piece and suffers from any attempts to make it easier to show to children.
If we're going to be honest with ourselves, the ceiling on a film that relies primarily on allegory and is released with a PG rating by Disney is only so high. This cannot, due to those limitations, enter the upper echeleon of cinema. Allegory can only go so far and the Disney brand doesn't allow it to reach its full potential. But, with that in mind, the film is better than you would expect it to be...for the most part. A needless scene is added to the beginning of the film, and the ending feels rushed. Suddenly the children are all grown up and in the span of mere minutes, back in the wardrobe and into reality. We are shown nothing of their time on the throne, how they ruled, or what has become of Narnia. We can assume things are going well, but it would be nice to not have the film summarize to quickly. But the film already has clocked in at 140 minutes, so adding any to the end might be excessive. Unless, of course, we cut the pointless filler out of the beginning, or trim the middle. Parts of it have the feel of a rough cut, so I wonder if another couple of weeks in the editing room may have done wonders.
At very least they could have for some of the special effects, which border on cartoonish. This is fine for a kids movie, but for the film to achieve the epic feel its going for, the effects need to feel seamless. In the case of Aslan they do. The CGI on him is nearly perfect, but the beavers could use some work, as could some of the landscapes that look suspiciously like matte drawings. Part of the problem, I think, is that the films are trying to be too many things at once. They want to be a Christmas movie, a kids movie, a Disney movie, an epic, an Oscar contender, and The Lord of the Rings. In the end, though, it falls just short of being all of these things. Were it to pick a couple and fully devote itself to that end, we might have something excellent, but what we get instead is something pretty good.
 Exactly the reason Lewis didn't want the books adapted.