director: Stephen Frears
starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent
running time: 140 mins
I have intentionally not re-read the book prior to viewing the film as I wished to experience it anew, while hoping for the story to rekindle the same emotions it had as a child. As comparisons with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings are inevitable I shall not shy away from them but would offer as a warning that this is a very different film and a viewer who approaches it with the same expectations will be sorely disappointed. Equally, though it be a magical children’s story, it is something vastly predating Harry Potter and bears little resemblance below the surface. Rather it is something of a hybrid, epic children’s fantasy, in a way that will only truly become evident if the franchise does extend to further films (all seven books have been optioned, although The Horse and His Boy seems an unlikely candidate for a film).
The four Pevensie children, Lucy [Georgie Henley], Edmund [Skandar Keynes], Peter [William Moseley] and Susan [Anna Popplewell], are evacuated from London during WWII. They find themselves in a large stately home belonging to a reclusive professor [Jim Broadbent]. While exploring they discover a mysterious wardrobe that leads them into the magical world of Narnia. While marvelling at the wonderous creatures they soon discover, much to their surprise, their coming has been foretold signalling the end of the battle between the evil White Witch and Aslan, Narnia’s true king.
Given several television adaptations it is easy to regard this film as somewhat redundant. However, the impressive production values and Weta’s involvement in bringing the creatures to life makes this a much easier world in which to lose oneself. Nevertheless one must still approach it with an open childlike imagination in order to experience its full effect. It remains very true to C.S. Lewis’ book in both style and content. Although changes are evident, the Biblical imagery, particularly that embodied in Aslan, remains both intact and prominent.
The children’s performances are all decent, if not particularly noteworthy. Georgie Henley’s open-mouthed awe avoids being overly cutesie, while Peter and Edmund’s brotherly fighting seems a little rigid. In short you won’t find yourself cringing as in the first Potter instalment, nor will you be blown away. The secondary actors fare better, particularly James McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus, the fawn. Liam Neeson voices Aslan with sufficient gravitas, but the majestic lion still seems a little subdued in the film, perhaps because we see him from an outside perspective, rather than through the children’s feelings as in the book. Equally the witch, though suitably manipulative and chilling, seems to be lacking in presence.
Narnia itself feels less expansive than I would have liked, perhaps due to the lack of the lingering, sweeping panoramic shots of The Fellowship of the Ring. Despite this, it feels inherently magical from the first moment Lucy scrambles into its snow-covered forest. The soundtrack provides an enchanting accompaniment in the first half, becoming somewhat more routine further in. The battle sequences showcase Weta’s work with polar bear-drawn chariots and dozens of centaurs charging into battle. These are not the dark clashes of LOTR, however, but rather the epic fantasy battles of a child’s imagination with shining armour and bloodless swords.
Shots like the lamppost ground it well for those familiar with the book, while others may feel there are too many unanswered questions, such as Aslan’s disappearance and the witch’s origins. It is important to remember that these remained mysteries in the book too, answered only in the penultimate instalment, the prequel The Magician’s Nephew. This highlights that the faithful adaptation from the book is both its strength and its weakness.