Monday, April 24, 2006

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

This is a great adventure picture that spends more time setting up the great adventure than explaining it once you're there.

Four kids are sent away by their mum during World War II when the blitzkriegs threaten all their lives. Their new benefactor is their uncle, who lives in the country away from all the warfare and even sheltered from his nieces and nephews by a domineering housekeeper. One day, while the children are playing hide and seek in this cavernous mansion, little Lucy hides in a wardrobe closet that has no back wall. She stumbles into the snow...and headlong into the land of Narnia. Narnia, however, has its own troubles, as the evil White Witch has taken over the entire land, and every day is winter. A winter, by the way, without Christmas.

Director Andrew Adamson tackles his first live-action film, which he co-adapted, with a firm hand and some tricks up his sleeve. He gets good performances out of the four kids, three of which must turn in convincing portraits to bring us into the story. However, the story itself is a bit stop-and-start, with too much time spent on certain parts of the story and not enough on others. We have no idea why Narnia became the way it is, how it fell into the White Witch's hands, where Aslan came from, ad infinitum. Although it doesn't impede the action of the story not to know the answers to some of these things, it would certainly help us understand the motivation.

Another thing that was hard to understand was: which animals are good and which are evil? I understand that we're watching good vs. evil, and leaving alone the Christian metaphors here, the Nazis vs. the good guys comparison still holds up. But am I supposed to automatically know that tigers and wolves are bad, but foxes and beavers are good? It must be pretty difficult in a full-scale battle to know who is friend or foe. Like in the Lord of the Rings, you can tell in Narnia who to hit when you have an ogre in front of you, but it seems the animals of the realm have aligned themselves in a method we cannot discern.

It's hard to write a review about a fantasy made into a motion picture because the writer is aware of how difficult it must've been to put the whole thing together. I stayed for the whole roll of the credits at the end, and was amazed to see how many special effects companies were listed. It seems that ILM took on Aslan, the great lion messiah, and did a magnificent job, the best animation of a lion I've ever seen. (If you want to see bad lionine animation, take a look at Jumanji.) Liam Neeson's stately voiceover really adds to the character. The makeup artists must also take a bow. As an illustration of how complicated movie-making must've been, the only CGI on Mr. Tumnus, the faun, was his hooves. His ears were controlled by remote control. The makeup was extraordinary, from his fake nose to his body hair. Actor James McAvoy fit effortlessly into his animated feet, and with his charm and worried frown is the first character to warn us of the dual nature of Narnia.

But the best part of Narnia is Jadis, the White Witch. One wonders what roles Tilda Swinton can play, as she's so unusual looking, but one need not wonder with this one. She is a joy to watch as she leads one of the boys into a trap, using only her words and some treats. And her icy stare could freeze you on the spot.

I think I have an innate problem with watching kids go into battle, fighting for their lives. And I would think that parents should be warned when sitting their kids in front of the DVD player that they will see children in danger, and beyond that: kidnapped, tortured, starving, injured. Another problem I had with the story is that the girls have little to do in comparison with the boys, and are resigned to the most part to observing the action that seems reserved for the males. That was very disturbing, and that tendency even extended to the animals!

Despite these misgivings, I did like the story, and I really admired the animation. I liked how the story was set up with the children, and was surprised with how it ended. I'm looking forward to the six possible sequels. Thumb's up.


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