The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) / Fantasy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG for violence (Probably too intense for young children)
Running Time: 130 min.

Cast: Tilda Swinton, William Mosely, Skandar Keynes, Anna Popplewell, Georgie Henley, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Kiran Shah, James Cosmo, Liam Neeson (voice), Ray Winstone (voice), Dawn French (voice), Rupert Everett (voice),
Director: Andrew Adamson
Screenplay: Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on the novel by C.S. Lewis)
Review published December 11, 2005

Sometimes gorgeously realized, this first chapter in a proposed seven film series, based on their appropriate counterparts in novel form by C.S. Lewis, still falls short in the narrative and dialogue.  With fantasy films raking in big bucks at the box office these days, it is a fitting time for Lewis' stories to be brought to life on the big screen, although the lack of patience in the storytelling in the first chapter provides a major obstacle to complete enjoyment.  Impatient to get to the good stuff, we have to deal with serious contrivances in getting the four main characters from sheltered children to full-on warriors in a matter of just a few scenes.  It's a difficult pill to swallow, as if the ends of a great battle spectacle justifies the ridiculous means that bring it there.  As impressive as the final conflict is in terms of the special effects, there is a hokey tint that permeates nearly every scene, with a juvenile depth that makes one almost embarrassed to listen to such trite dialogue and goofball heroics.  While this film sets up future entries to have a chance at being good adventure tales, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is crippled by trying too hard to get from point A to point Z, skipping most of the letters in between.

The film starts off in the World War II era, where four London children are sent for their own protection to a professor's home out in the country.  While playing hide and seek one day, the youngest decides to hide in a large wardrobe which reveals itself to be a portal to a magical world filled with exotic creatures, both beautiful and menacing.  It seems that a prophecy in this world, called Narnia by its inhabitants, foretells of a group of four humans that would arrive into the land and become rulers.  Out to stop the prophecy from ever coming true is the scheming White Witch (Swinton, Constantine), who wants to capture and kill all four children and assume the role of queen of all the lands by herself.  As the children come through the wardrobe into Narnia, they find themselves as the most savored pawns in a war for supremacy between the noble lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson, Batman Begins) and the White Witch, in the ultimate battle between good and evil.

At the risk of offending the book's staunchest of fans, I will nevertheless address some of the reasons why the story, at least as portrayed by the movie, doesn't really have the qualities to make it a lasting epic in the way that its obvious counterpart, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, is.  First, the story is imaginative in certain respects, except in the plotting, which is hindered by being very pat and predictable.  Humans finding a magic portal to another world is nothing new; "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz" were already well-established classics.  Of course, these humans almost always have a destiny and major role o play in the outcome of the events of this strange land, and in the process, they learn many things about themselves and what's important. 

Going from complete outsiders to vital participants isn't surprising, although this development has rarely been taken for granted as it has in this film.  The children literally get their weapons from, in a ham-handed fashion, Father Christmas, and without but the barest of practice sessions, they change into full-fledged warriors with skills that would take months, if not years, to master.  Besides the fact that the kids-as-fighters element seems egregiously forced, it is also just downright silly at times.  Watching the children have to battle snarling wolves and other fierce creatures, spitting out snicker-inducing dialogue, and never really evoking enough fear or suspicion to really question their involvement in Narnia, or the merit of staying there, makes their characters seem more like empty vessels to bring forth thrills and intrigue rather than honestly trying to reel us in to their plight.  They are merely mechanisms for a workable, if overdone, battle between good and evil, and little more.

C.S. Lewis' original work was famed for having an overriding Christian backbone, with many New Testament allusions that are mostly glossed over in this Disney production.  With so much money thrown into the production, it's understandable why they'd go for a broad appeal approach.  While those of faith will probably read more into the movie than other viewers, it can be viewed without any prior knowledge of the Biblical text, although you'll probably be more objective in your assessment of the film's merits as a whole.  Still, what does remain is just too simplistic and obvious in its approach to take seriously, lacking the subtlety and mystery to make this fantasy mesmerizing and interesting.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe isn't without merit.  Tilda Swinton makes a very formidable and appealing White Witch, and the cinematographic elements are as lush and beautiful as you'd expect for a wondrous adventure.  However, more often than not, I found myself wincing at the cheesy way it is presented, overflowing with convenient twists and heroic hokum.  Sometimes, it's just hard not to laugh at it.  Where The Lord of the Rings felt like an infinite world full of mythology and mysteries that could take several lifetimes to uncover, The Chronicles of Narnia seems small and simple, with clearly delineated lines of conflict, taking place in a world that feels like just a few square miles in territory.  That the film will have its share of zealous fans is already a given, but I believe that, over time, many will look back at this first chapter as a weak and mawkish beginning for a series of films that will (hopefully) see better, more interesting days in its future than has been evidenced thus far.

-- Followed by Prince Caspian (2008) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Previous versions include a 1967 television mini-series, and two made-for-TV movies in 1979 (animated) and 1988 (live action).

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo