Almost everybody I know read C.S. Lewis’ fantasy series “The Chronicles of Narnia” while they were growing up. It’s hard to ask for much better stories that can capture adventure and wonder for children better, all while providing the morals and fables parents love, too. The books have been adapted a few times to TV series and occasionally to animated pictures, but in 2005, the series finally came to the big screen.
Lewis’ first and most famous installment, “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” was published in 1950. It tells the tale of four children — youngest Lucy, Edmund, Susan and eldest Peter — who discover a magical world by journeying through an old wardrobe. They encounter all sorts of mystical creatures on their way to meeting Aslan, a lion and ruler of the kingdom, and helping him defeat the evil White Witch, who had taken over Narnia in Aslan’s absence. Aslan sacrifices his life to save one of them, but because of old magic, the innocent lion is resurrected and in the end vanquishes the witch. The children are made kings and queens of Narnia and rule for many years before unknowingly returning to our world, where they revert to their childhood states.
The movie version came out in the wake of another fantasy classic’s resurgence in cinema: Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies. The impact of these highly successful movies is felt throughout “Narnia,” especially in the climactic battle scene. CGI abounds in many of the creatures, and the battle sequences seem pulled straight from the LOTR playbook. The book is not very long and hardly spends any time on the battle. We don’t even see how the better part of it plays out; we only see from the time Aslan shows up with Lucy, Susan and the unfrozen reinforcements right at the end of the fighting. The battle in the movie, while not very original, is very nice to look at as all the creatures get placed on display.
A big thing the movie has going for it is a truly memorable Aslan. The lion is entirely CGI, and the work on him is done in such intricate detail that it’s simply amazing to look upon him, perfect for his character. He is voiced by Liam Neeson, who fits the part perfectly, but who doesn’t really put much emotion into the performance. Aslan in the book is much more on top of every situation; he is not fazed by the news of Edmund’s betrayal in joining the White Witch, as the movie’s Aslan is.
Other Narnia characters are captured perfectly. The faun Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) is at once kind, sorrowful and brave, and the way he plays off Lucy (Georgie Henley) results in a very genuine feeling of friendship. The star of the film, though, is Tilda Swinton’s White Witch, who is at all times crafty, cunning, cruel and, of course, cold. Throughout the movie — never more so than in the final battle — she shows that she is definitely a force to be reckoned with in every aspect, and her threatening aura is handled perfectly. The witch in the book is more one-dimensional, a classic children’s baddie, but Swinton brings more facets to the character.
Ultimately, though, this story is about the four children, and this is where the movie really runs into problems. Children always prove risky as leads, and in this case, having four is especially problematic. Henley does a good enough job as the imaginative Lucy, but she can’t carry the movie. The filmmakers didn’t seem to know what to do with Susan, as she gets the least focus in the book. They show her practicing her bow and arrow (which she doesn’t use at all in the book) to build more of a female warrior out of her, but all she does is fire once in the aftermath of the battle.
That leaves the two boys, Edmund and Peter, who are constantly on the other’s bad side up until Edmund’s rescue and change of heart. In the book, Edmund is clearly the bad apple of the bunch, picking on Lucy all the time without rhyme or reason. The movie tries to soften the audience’s stance on him. In the prologue, he goes back during an air raid to save their father’s photo from being blown to bits. Skander Keynes plays him more like a boy just looking for some loving attention than an out-and-out jerk. All that would be perfectly fine … except for what that does to Peter’s character. Peter berates him incessantly throughout the first few acts, blaming him for just about everything that’s going wrong. It makes Peter seem more like the jerk than Edmund, which is a shame because Edmund’s transformation is supposed to be a key focus of the book. Peter hardly appears kingly, even at the end of the adventure (though, of course, why the kingdom would be fine just yielding dominion over to four random adolescent/child strangers in the first place continues to elude me), something that will keep the book in higher regard to me.
Will the movie makers learn their lessons for “Prince Caspian”? I’ll take a look in the weeks ahead!