Monday, December 12, 2005

MOVIES: 'The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe'

Image hosted by Photobucket.comLike many dreamy kids, I grew up reading C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. They were part of my steady diet, along with the original "Oz" series, Herge's "Tintin" and Hugh Lofting's "Dr. Dolittle" adventures. I liked them for what they were -- smashing epic stories in a strange land filled with amazing characters.

But I approach the movie with anticipation, and a bit of caution. I've seen movies bomb out with books I've loved before, most recently last summer's misbegotten "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" remake. How does Narnia fare?

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe" (deep breath) leaps to the big screen with an armload of digital effects, a blockbuster director (Andrew Adamson of "Shrek") and a whole lot of marketing. (Contrary to how some are pushing it, I never particularly read the "Narnia" series as a Christian propaganda manual and am a bit put off by Disney's overselling of it as that, but that's a whole other blogpost, I think.) From a fan's perspective, I found "Narnia" fulfilling, but not quite inspiring. It reminds me a bit of the first two "Harry Potter" movies -- dutiful, nice to look at, but it doesn't stick with you like it could.

"Wardrobe," the first in seven Narnia books written by Lewis, is the tale of four stalwart WWII-era young British children who wander through a wardrobe into a magical world. The land of Narnia is under the spell of an evil White Witch (played superbly here by Tilda Swinton, all glam-rock menace and slightly sexy allure), who has kept the land in winter for a hundred years. The good animals and beasts of Narnia await the return of the true lord of the land, the lion Aslan, who it is said will defeat the witch with the aid of four young human children. When Peter, Lucy, Susan and Edmund stumble into Narnia, it looks like the prophecy is coming true.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comDirector Adamson has one of the great stories as fertile material for his movie, and in the first half of the movie, he does a fine job evoking Narnia's wintry charm. The special effects are solid, and for once a movie has made talking animals seem somewhat realistic. The child actors, all unknowns, have to carry the bulk of the tale, with Skandar Keynes as the treacherous Edmund the best of them, all dark-eyed envy and fear. The older two children are sometimes a bit too stoic and stiff, particularly William Moseley as the eldest, Peter.

Oddly, it's once the heroic Aslan (voiced by a regal Liam Neeson) appears in the movie that it starts to go a bit soft. Having taken its time, the movie begins to rush along too quickly – the relationship between Aslan and the children seems forced, and a gigantic battle between armies of dueling beasties at the end doesn't have the impact it should. Peter Jackson did this kind of thing pretty definitively with "Lord of the Rings," and Adamson doesn't have the masterful sense of pacing or drama to make this material soar.

"Narnia" is best in the smaller moments, such as a gentle tea between Lucy and the faun Mr. Tumnus, or in Edmund's smooth seduction by the evil White Witch. When "Narnia" tries too hard to be an epic for the ages, it loses the prim British charm that made the novels so memorable. From the looks of the box office, it'll do well enough to have a few sequels. (I'm particularly interested in them tackling the third book, "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," which has always been my favorite.)

Lewis' style is notably minimalist and spare, especially obvious when reading the books again as an adult. He evokes more than he describes, which is great when you're a kid. But a movie has to fill in the gaps and throw in the action, and in a world crowded with Harry Potters and hobbits, "Narnia" never quite makes the leap from a good adaptation into a truly great work of art all on its own.

The verdict: *** of four

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