Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

A couple of years before I moved to the Puget Sound area, a friend showed me a postcard of Seattle with Mt. Rainier looming over it in the background. The mountain looked so immense I assumed the photograph was doctored. Two years later I moved to Seattle and I’ll never forget one of my first mornings there, driving around the east side of Queen Anne Hill. It was a clear day and as I came past the hill there it was, Mt. Rainier, towering over the city. It was more magnificent than I imagined—even bigger than how it appeared in the post card.

What does this have to do with a review of Andrew Adamson’s motion picture version of C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? I’m only trying to illustrate that our expectations can be tricky and only very occasionally do things live up to them. Does Adamson’s effort pass my “Mt. Rainier” test? At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, my answer is yes and no, but mostly no.

Most of the scenes are richly textured—appropriately accompanying and expanding my thoughts of how the scenes from the book ought to look. I felt this from the start of the film with the German bombing of London. The sequence is dark and frightening and helps give some stronger context to why the children are sent to the country. In the book this is given only brief mention. This texture continues in each scene—Professor Kirke’s huge, labyrinth-like country home, the snowy wood at Lantern Waste in Narnia, Tumnus’s cave home, the witch’s castle, the battlefield, the castle at Cair Paravel where the children are ultimately crowned Kings and Queens of Narnia. All of these places look more magnificent than I imagined.

I will say, though, that while the scenes look good, they often don’t flow well from one to another. Too often, the scenes feel as though they have been in-expertly cut into a jigsaw puzzle, and when Adamson puts it back together the edges don’t quite fit together. Part of the reason for this is that characters are introduced from time to time, but are rarely portrayed in a way that we connect to emotionally. Exceptions to this are the faun, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), and Lucy (Georgie Henley). They are both shy and inquisitive when they meet after Lucy first enters Narnia. They immediately become friends, and Mr. Tumnus’ anguish later when he admits he was going to kidnap Lucy feels very real. Because of how this relationship is portrayed, I had hopes (or expectations) that the other character interactions would have the same depth.

But, alas, it wasn’t to be. The other characters don’t fare as well, and this is unfortunate since few films can succeed on good looks alone. In fairness to Adamson, in the case of this story, I believe this is a huge, perhaps insurmountable challenge. Tilda Swinton as the White Witch and Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan do a serviceable job, but can’t be expected to capture the essence of good and evil that live in their counterparts in the book. Swinton fares best. She is quietly menacing when first introduced and becomes creepy and frightening once her true intentions and disposition are revealed. And though a lion may be king of the jungle, Neeson's Lion is never very convincing as the King of Narnia.

The other Pevensie children fare even less well, I’m afraid. They are fine during the first part of the film when they are allowed to be just ordinary children. Peter (William Moseley) tries to be brave and struggles with being the oldest. Edmund (Skandar Keynes) chafes at Peter’s scolding and misses his father. Susan (Anna Popplewell) is cautious and worried. Once all four children finally enter Narnia through the wardrobe, we see Lucy’s loyalty and bravery in wanting to help her friend Tumnus who has been arrested by the witch. To Henley’s and Adamson’s credit, Lucy retains these and the aforementioned qualities throughout the film, and is allowed to remain child-like.

The other children, though, have to grow a great deal—especially Peter and Edmund, once he is freed from the White Witch. In the book, the Narnia air itself helps make this transformation. The children look the same, yet they change in magical ways. They seem to grow in stature, become stronger and sterner as they prepare for the battle. In battle they are warriors, as fierce as any creature on the field. This transformation is too big a task for Adamson and his actors. The young actors can swing swords and shoot arrows and bleed on the battlefield, but they don’t come close to convincing me that they are more than what they appear to be—very young people playing grownup.

This film may be best suited for the same age group of children for which the books were intended. The violence is not too graphic and the peril may be enough to hold their interest. Also, as in the book, the fight for and triumph of good over evil is easily grasped. I would be surprised if this becomes the timeless classic that the book has become, but I can’t view it through the eyes and mind of a nine-year-old. Time will tell if, for his effort, Adamson can stand with Lewis.

Images Copyright 2005 Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Walden Media, LLC. All rights reserved.