Thursday, January 05, 2006

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

While this is a good film overall, it is definitely as overlong as the title, and in need of an edit. J and L enjoyed it thoroughly, and have both heard the book read aloud. J has spoken to a number of her friends since seeing it and they also enjoyed it, apparently without having read the book. As a film on its own, it is certainly a success, though my (major) reservation about the ponderous length stands. I’m not sure why every film these days needs to be of epic length!

Throughout the entire film there are numerous reaction shots – closeups of the faces of characters as they look long at each other, or some bit of scenery. This adds considerably to the length, particularly in the pre-Narnia sequences. The morality of all the children in the film seems questionable, with their hiding (after accidentally breaking a leadlight window) here being their motivation for getting into the Wardrobe, and their consistently selfish and indifferent attitude to the denizens of Narnia often leaving a bad taste. Maybe this is modern religious morality at work, as opposed to the higher morality clearly espoused by Lewis in the books, but it works against some of the positive elements.

The casting of the four lead child actors is excellent. Their ages have been separated further than in the books, but all four carry their roles well and with conviction. Mr. Tumnus the faun is performed with vulnerability and warmth. Tilda Swinton is in fine form as the Witch, able to be charming or coldly repellant by turns – a brave piece of casting that pays off.

The creatures are beautifully computer animated, with the Beavers being an absolute triumph (particularly in contrast with the costumed travesties of the BBC TV adaptation a decade or so ago). Aslan is a mixed success – at times coming across as the required iconic spiritual leader, and at other times coming across as a slightly awkward composite of CGI lion and Liam Neeson’s voice, which seems to want to drift off towards a narrative role.

There is a failure to really build the relationship between the children and Aslan, particularly where they walk with Aslan (a key passage in the books). This sequence also leads to one of the most oddly abrupt jump cuts, from their concealment to the gathering monsters.

Susan has (as in the books), the most thankless role – while well-acted, her character is awkwardly set up. Her line about a “man in a red suit” makes no sense at all, given that Father Christmas in this film is in more traditional (non-red) costume. And her intitials (SP) on the quiver he gives her can only be regarded as cheesy in the extreme. The conflicted Edmund, by contrast, is well-developed, and the sibling dialogue between all four children is convincing.

The changes made from film to book sometimes serve the plot well enough and sometimes not. Having Edmund encounter Mr. Tumnus - and the consequences of his actions - in the Witch’s dungeons, makes complete sense.

However, the protacted and invented scene involving crossing a melting river, slows the action, makes no logical sense (the wolves cross on the rocks above and actually get ahead of the children), gets bogged down in nonsensical dialogue and leads to some bad jump cuts, setting up cliched “near-drowning” sequences. In particular, Maugrim, the Chief Wolf, is ineffectual in a way he never is in the book, failing to dispatch Mr. Beaver while he can. The protracted conversation with him seems to only serve to showcase the screen cuteness of the wolves (a problem in any case), and the fight with Peter couldn’t be more Hollywood, or different from the vivid description in the book, both in feel and meaning. (I’d also like to know how The White Witch gets her war chariot from an overlooking rockpile onto the battlefield.)

The soundtrack works well, forming a tight synergy with the pacing and direction choices, being willing to cover broad musical ground (it even drifts toward ambient rock at points - something Howard Shore’s humourless and conventional orchestration on “The Lord of the Rings” films would never do).

In every other respect, the film of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe tries to be literal to the book. It works hard to establish the gritty reality and dark rooms of a world that I never imagined as gritty or dark. The houses of Tumnus and the Beavers lack any sense of warmth at all, and the stony countryside where Aslan’s army gathers seems far from the beautiful green hills of an imagined Narnia. The influence of Pauline Baynes (illustrator of the books) is felt in many respects, such as the decision to make Lucy brown-haired rather than blonde, and the composition of many images, but the warmth and lightness of her touch is absent. Also lost is C.S. Lewis’s distinctive leavening humour.

While this is a fine film featuring strong casting and set pieces, and very entertaining, it somehow falls short of capturing Narnian magic. A tighter edit could well consolidate its many strengths.


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