For all the angry fist-shaking and elitist muttering regarding the alleged dearth of great filmmaking over the past few years, the flashy, spectacle-filled world of blockbuster filmmaking may be at its prime. From the magic of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the last two Harry Potter films to the superpowered geek stories of Spider-Man and the X-Men, multiplexes, spurred by advances in computer generated special effects, have exploded with exemplary depictions of the fantastic. What’s more, these films prove that much-beloved source material can be faithfully adapted to please fans, novices and critics alike; they are not just decent matinees, but memorable movies worthy of repeat viewing.
With this in mind, it’s tough to see the first big-budget adaptation of a book from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series–The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe–as anything other than a mild disappointment. It is the epitome of a decent film: thoroughly, depressingly adequate, but not one smidgen more. Like Tom Cruise suspended over the pressure sensitive CIA floor in Mission: Impossible, it hangs just inches above the disaster of mediocrity and, though it never sets off any serious alarms, neither does it soar into the stratosphere of movie adaptation excellence. Superficially faithful to its source, its most prominent unfaithfulness is its inability to channel Lewis’ whimsical, imaginative spirit–the spirit that, for the last half century, has lifted the book to classic status.
The film’s narrative stays essentially accurate to the novel’s, compressing the real world scenes to move its protagonists more quickly into the magical world of Narnia and adding a few unnecessary action sequences in an effort to inject some Hollywood thrills. As in the books, the four Pevensie children, two girls and two boys of varying ages, find their way into a snowy wonderland populated by talking animals and various mythological creatures. Along the way, they join a fight against a wicked witch who keeps the world in perpetual winter, taking sides with a majestic talking lion named Aslan. Christian metaphor abounds and life lessons are learned to the rhythm of magical battles and fantasy world wonders. The film duly delivers, but it can’t match the charm and mystique of the book.
For those gathering pitchforks in protest, wondering who to blame, my advice would be to start at the beginning of the phonebook–with the A’s. Director Andrew Adamson’s only previous directorial efforts were the two Shrek films, movies which excavated the sewers of so-called family filmmaking with a hyperventilating devotion to pop-culture reference and tawdry, gross-out humor. These movies raked in the cash with the family crowd, however, and were entirely CGI–apparently just the résumé the Narnia producers were looking for. Wardrobe is a vast step up from Adamson’s earlier work, excising all the bodily function humor and pop smarminess, but it still lacks both the sweeping gravitas of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series and the endlessly detailed magical mechanisms of the two recent Harry Potter films.
And, as is to be expected from someone who previously worked only in animation, Adamson’s work with the actors is pale as well. Most scenes feel as if Adamson simply told his performers where to stand and how to get out of the way of the effects. This works reasonably well with gifted actors, but for several of the children in lead roles who are clearly big screen novices, the result is wooden and amateurish. Anna Popplewell and Skandar Keynes as child leads Susan and Edmund, respectively, have a certain British formalism to their performances, but mostly feel stranded by the bland dialogue. Jim Broadbent, as the mysterious Professor, suffers from a weird resemblance to Will Ferrell–but with the freakish hair of Wolverine.
As the eldest boy Peter, William Moseley seems especially out of his league. He’s blessed with the meticulously parted, glowing blonde coiffure and strutting, certain jaw required for adolescent male stardom, but far from being the great leader the film suggests, he seems intimidated by his dialogue–not exactly a reassuring trait for someone destined to lead a fight against a hoard of axe-wielding minotaurs and skulking killer wolves.
Quite the opposite, though, are Tilda Swinton as the shimmering White Witch and first-time star Georgie Henley as the youngest lead, Lucy. Swinton is a chic, devilish delight as the ice-clad, temptress ruler of Narnia. Gliding through her snowy domain with an icicle-laced hairdo (think how much time that must take in the morning) and a frozen glare, she is a crafty practitioner of bourgeoisie seduction–as likely to gift those in her presence with fine food as a tongue lashing. Henley, on the other hand, rivals Butterstick for honors as the year’s most unabashed representative of unfettered cuteness. Graceful, quick-witted and candy-bar sweet, she has an impassioned, defiant innocence that carries the film through its weaker moments. Whatever weaknesses Adamson might show in his direction, he smartly keeps his film tightly trained on young Henley and her star-making performance.
Of all these prominent weaknesses, none are risible enough to do the film in. To Adamson’s credit, there are a few strong moments as well. The director packs Aslan’s death scene with a monster’s ball of glowering ghouls, bathing in PG-rated horror movie menace. He also has the sense not to muck seriously with the Christian overtones; Lewis’ allegory is neither shamefully exaggerated nor tucked away.
And of course, as the latest Hollywood offering boasting an elephantine effects budget, there is an endless parade of otherworldly digital splendor. If some of the effects feel a bit cartoony–more like the comic creations of Shrek than the photoreal monsters of Middle Earth–they don’t lack in creativity. From the White Witch’s polar-bear driven battle sleigh to the mile-long lineup of mystical beasts, this movie has all the eye-popping visual bravado that $180 million worth of special effects wizardry can buy.
The problem with the film isn’t that it’s bad; in many ways, it’s quite enjoyable. Certainly, it’s not two hours at the theater that many will regret. But it simply doesn’t instill the same sort of deep satisfaction proffered by other fantasy epics of late, nor does it match the enduring warmth and wit of its source material. Instead, it prefers to be merely, and forgettably, good. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, like so many other holiday products, is little more than a Christmas-time trifle, a stocking stuffer to be enjoyed, cooed over, and discarded as soon as the next present is unwrapped.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire