This lavish adaptation of the children’s novel by C.S. Lewis is spectacular to behold, with amazing production design that has been beautifully photographed to eye-popping effect. But the story never quite lives up to the grandeur of the visuals, and the narrative tends to drag, especially in the first half. Fortunately, things pick up when Aslan the talking lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) shows up; there’s some decent suspense, some reasonably frightening moments, and a decently exciting battle (perhaps a bit too intense for younger viewers, considering the overall children’s storybook tone).
The story begins in England during World War II, with the four Pevensie children sent to live in the relatively safe countryside. In a mansion where they are house, they find a wardrobe that is a sort of magical gateway to the land of Narnia, which is presided over by an evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) who keeps the land locked in perpetual winter. It turns out that the Pevensies are part of a prophecy: they will lead the land to victory, overthrowing the witch with the help of Aslan, who is marshaling an army for them to lead. Despite being inexperienced children who were trying to avoid involvement in a war back home, they rise to the occasion and lead Narnia to victory, though not without sacrifice and betrayal along the way.
The film’s greatest strength is in creating the land of Narnia, which is absolutely beautiful and believable, in a fairy tale way. The inhabitants are a little less successful: CGI does a good job of creating human-animal hybrids like centaurs and fauns, but talking animals like the Beavers are less successful – too human and cartoony, walking upright and serving too obviously as comic relief. Fortunately, Aslan the lion is permitted to retain his four-footed posture and, along with it, his regal bearing.
The human cast is good, with four younger actors turning in solid performances as the Pevensie children. Despite their best efforts, however, they never convince us that they have become warriors, capable of defeating the White Witch. This sort of Disney-esque daydream might have worked in an all-out cartoon. Tilda Swinton is fine as the White Witch, but she is undercut by the script, which supplies her with too many flat lines; especially at the end of scenes, when a lethal zinger seems needed to cap the action, we get only the most prosaic dialogue.
As for the much-discussed Catholic subtext of Lewis’s story. It’s barely there, not registering in any overt way. Sure, Aslan is the Christ-figure who sacrifices himself to save others, but this is a pretty generic plot device, common to fantasy stories, with little or no specific dogma attached to it. If you didn’t go into the film looking for it, it would barely register.
In the end, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE is a passable piece of family entertainment, with enough good moments to compensate for the rather dull beginning. It’s not bad, but it’s no LORD OF THE RINGS.
The single-disc DVD of the film (available in both full screen and widescreen versions) offers beautiful picture and sound, along with a handful of extras: two audio commentaries (one with director and cast; one with director, producer, and production designer), a pop-up feature (which displays fun facts and interesting trivia while you are viewing the film), and a short featurette called “Bloopers of Narnia” (which might have been better titled “Goofing Around in Narnia,” as if showcases few actual bloopers).
The double-disc collector’s DVD includes these features, plus a second disc loaded with extras, divided into two groups: Creating Narnia and Creatures, Lands & Legends. The former includes featurettes and video diaries by the director and cast on the film’s production; the latter includes maps, timelines, and background information on the imaginary world of Narnia.
In addition, there is a four-disc extended edition, which includes a bookend gift set (see below).
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005). Directed by Andrew Adamson. Screenplay by Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on the novel by C.S.Lewis. Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, Jim Broadbent, Liam Neeson (voice), Ray Winstone (voice), Rupert Everett (voice).
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