Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/10/05 12:45:21

"Well, the wardrobe was interesting. One out of three ain't bad."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Among the first words of any proper review of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” you should find mention of “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s all too obvious that Disney is looking to capture some of that fantasy franchise magic; perhaps upset that Miramax let “Rings” slip away to New Line years back, the studio now looks to Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis as inspiration for its own series with built-in fans and a guaranteed box office haul. So convinced is everyone involved that they’ve got the makings of the Next Big Thing that they’ve even bothered to clunky up the title of the first movie, adding “The Chronicles of Narnia” to an already overlong title, just so us regular folk can figure out that this is just the beginning.

Oh, and just for luck, I suppose, Disney and Walden Media (the film’s main producer) opted to film the whole thing in New Zealand. A bit of Jackson envy, I suppose.

To be fair, calling “Narnia” a complete “Rings” rip-off would not be entirely accurate - aside from the occasional slo-mo shot and a giant chain mail-covered battle scene in the final act that’s obviously been inspired by the earlier trilogy, the story and the movie are decidedly different than anything in the “Rings” universe. “Narnia” is, in fact, mostly a quaint fairy tale, loaded with cute children, talking animals, and the random satyr.

It’s been far too long since I’ve read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the first and most famous of Lewis’ Narnia novels, so I’m not sure if the parts in the movie that put me off are the fault of Lewis or the screenwriters. Whoever’s to blame, the story just doesn’t work. Oh, it begins just fine - quite wonderfully, in fact, as four lonely siblings discover that a hidden wardrobe in a spare room is in fact the gateway to the magical snow-covered kingdom of Narnia. This first half is, for the most part, a delight, with the discoveries of a new world winning us over. But then the story takes an odd left turn, with the introduction of a major war and the inclusion of the children in that war. The transition from enchanted fairy land to medieval battle ground is strained at best.

Ultimately, the story is too lazy. There’s an embarrassing bit in the middle of it all in which the last character you’d ever expect to cameo here pops by to all-too-loudly deliver the main characters with weapons (because hey, giving kids sharp objects and telling them to get ready for war is fun!) as well as the world’s worst deus ex machina (you’ll know it when you see it, because for the rest of the movie you’ll be busy waiting for it to be brought out for use - only the one time when she’s about to use it, she doesn’t, for no explicable reason,* but I’ve complained about this long enough, even going into a nasty run-on sentence to do it, but yeah, that’s how much I hated this bit). Long story short (too late), this cameo had me laughing at a point in the film where I wasn’t supposed to be laughing.

The final bulk of the story involves the war, in which the eldest brother is declared to be ready to lead the forces of good. Never mind that nobody ever bothers to explain why or how this kid’s ready to lead, or why or how he instantly becomes capable to lead, or why or how nobody stops to think about how unpleasant it is to see children getting all geeked up for war that’d make Braveheart jealous. (Sure, it’s a bloodless battle, but still.)

So that’s the story. As for the movie, I compliment it on being a competent production. The computer effects are convincing, the acting is serviceable, the art direction and costume design impressive, the casting of the hauntingly beautiful Tilda Swinton as the White Witch is inspired (even if her mediocre character is not). But the movie lacks heart, lacks soul. Director/co-writer Andrew Adamson (making his live action debut after helming the “Shrek” movies) is so busy delivering a straightforward adaptation of Lewis’ writings that the whole film becomes an empty, by-the-numbers fantasy. Things happen here, but there’s no impact, no emotional connect. It’s just a matter of “oooh, look at that giant army! oooh, look at that talking beaver!” Even someone like myself, who thought they were flawed works, knew that the “Rings” films hit a deep emotional chord, with thoughts on our actions, our feelings, our world, our connection with others, with nature. The same can be said of “Star Wars;” sure, there are shallow points in that franchise, but overall, the mythology takes deep personal root in the viewer. In “Narnia,” however, there’s nothing to feel. It’s all too simplistic to ever take hold.

Consider the supposed sincere mentorship from a lion named Aslan, who is supposed to be this awe-inspiring figure of good, but is in reality just a dull cat with Liam Neeson’s voice that exists merely as a plot device with fur. After being talked up so much in the movie’s first half, his grand entrance should be this momentous moment. Instead, it’s just a cat walking out of a tent. Pretty much sums up the character right there: an uninspiring Simba who’s only the movie’s hero because we’re told he is, an uninteresting kitty who arrives just so he can weakly shove one bit of Christian allegory down our throats.

Ah, yes. There are some overly obvious metaphors here (although it can be argued that it’s not all about Jesus as much as it is general story themes that have survived over countless millennia). But the film rushes through these points so clumsily that the “wow” potential of these scenes go missing. There are things that happen in the film’s final act that are just tossed off with a “well, if they didn’t happen, we’d have no story.” This includes one action that could have (should have?) happened in an earlier scene - one sister tells another not to use that aforementioned deus ex machina, even when it’d would’ve done just fine, just so the same result can happen later without her help - and when what would’ve happened then finally does get around to happening later (we’re quickly tossed a dopey magical excuse, but it doesn’t work), things get frustrating. To have something happen magically just so it can happen magically is a cheap way of getting one’s point across.

Although perhaps this shallowness is the result of a clumsy screenplay that works to squeeze so much story into a marketable running time. There are side characters here that come and go too quickly, seeming like they should be more important than they are. There are explanations that flitter away unsatisfactorily, moments that fail to linger. It’s as if the filmmakers figure that if they can show the main stuff, the magic will arrive by itself. That’s a sloppy way of telling any story, let alone one with such potential for enchantment.

Adamson plays the notes, as the old saying goes, but he doesn’t seem to know the music. “Star Wars” had heart, “Rings” had soul, “Narnia” has talking beavers. And that, on its own, is not enough to make movie magic.

*Since writing this, I have received several emails in which Lewis fans have yelled at me (both politely and not so much) about me not “getting my facts straight.” So if you’ll heed this MAJOR SPOILER WARNING, I’ll quickly explain why I thought what I thought, and why I’m not bothering to actually change what I wrote above. You see, once Santa showed up, my brain pretty much exploded. In trying to clean up the mess around me, I misheard “heal any wound,” interpreting it to mean it’ll bring someone back from the dead, too. So technically, no, it couldn’t be used to resurrect Aslan. Or could it? What killed Aslan? A wound. And hey, that’s powerful juice, so why not let it bring Talking Lion back?

Ah, but then we wouldn’t have the magical moment where he does return to life (the explanation about the Super Magic Table tossed off like we all knew how he sprang back to life, so why bother discussing it?), and Lucy wouldn’t have any left to offer the bajillion injured (not one of ’em dead!) soldiers. Thanks, Santa!

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