Written by Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely & Ann Peacock, based on the novel by C.S. Lewis
Directed by Andrew Adamson
Starring Georgie Henley, William Moseley, Skandar Keynes, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton
My Advice: Matinee. But only if you must.
England, during World War II, is getting the absolute crap bombed out of it. The decision is made to get the children of the cities the hell out of Dodge and out into the countryside where they will be safe(r). Thus the four Pevensie children head for the middle of nowhere, to stay with a professor (Jim Broadbent, in need of better facial hair) and his crotchety housekeeper (Elizabeth Hawthorne). While there, and bored, the youngest, Lucy (Henley) stumbles upon a magical wardrobe that opens onto another world: Narnia. There, she finds a kingdom frozen by the evil White Witch (Swinton), and she and her siblings will soon be caught up in a war between the forces of the witch’s evil and the forces of good, led by the lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson).
Let’s address the question head-on, then. How do you take a straight-up Christian allegory, disguised as a children’s book, and make it into a mainstream movie? Well, this movie is one way, but the allegory portion of it simply clunks. Of course, it clunked in the book itself too, until finally Lewis couldn’t stand it anymore and, not content to merely hint around the bush any longer, threw the facade away in Book Seven, screaming “THE LION IS JESUS!!! GET IT???” and making lots of kids the world over feel betrayed. So the fact that the whole sacrifice portion of the movie is a little heavy handed can’t be blamed on the filmmakers here.
And indeed, the fact that the movie isn’t bad, but simply mediocre, can’t be blamed on a lot of people. First up, the myriad effects shops who worked on the film aren’t in trouble: everything looks good. Damn good, in fact. So good that you don’t have a problem with animals who look like straight up animals talking. Towards the end, when I realized the film was just going to meander and not get any better, I at least comforted myself with the fact that the daemons in Golden Compass are going to be perfect when that film finally gets made. But the battle sequence is all the trailer promised, and every minotaur, centaur, griffin, and whatnot all look pretty damn spiffy.
The cast can’t be blamed either. The kids, with the exception of Popplewell (who plays Susan) are all newcomers. Tilda Swinton is a freaking Amazon warrior woman and a pitch perfect White Witch. The voices of all the animals, including Neeson (who appears to be supplanting Patrick Stewart as the new go-to We Need a Voice of Sage Wisdom guy), are all good.
So what happened? Well, first of all, the script happened. Anytime you see more than two names credited (and those are only the ones credited, mind you), that’s a bad sign. But…well, let me give you an example. Somewhere along the line, somebody had a great idea for how to start the film. Back in the day, the concept of the kids being spirited to the English countryside to get them out of harm’s way needed no introduction. We, however, are sixty years past the end of World War II, and most of the kids in public schools in America would be lucky to find England on a map. So somebody said: hey, let’s put some context to this and show England getting the shit bombed out of it. Let’s show the tearful goodbye at the train station and really drive home the fact that they’re escaping from one war only to find themselves in another. And kudos to whoever thought of this idea. But, because Hollywood is involved and infects almost everything it touches, this became a Place to Stick an Action Sequence (TM). What could have been a moment to let us get attached to the four kids and the mom (Judy McIntosh) while they huddle underground hearing the bombs go off overhead instead becomes a time for running around and the kids being in jeopardy (which never feels like real jeopardy at any point in the film) so we can have an explosion. Thanks, guys.
That’s just the start of the script’s problems, as other Action Moments are scattered about, none of them feeling real at all–not even “fantasy real.” And for those folks who think I’m bashing the Jesus Lion, here’s a shocker for you: there should have been less action and more of Aslan. Not trying to bash an adaptation for not being like the book, but there’s a great moment in which Lucy isn’t doing something she’s supposed to, which is taking care of others. And Aslan growls at her to get her to move and do her duty. It’s a great moment–and it and many more of Aslan’s bits are taken away. He’s reduced to being “My First Passion of the Christ” (TM), which is a shame, because at this point we’ve already been exposed to Gandalf and Dumbledore and Aslan’s just going to seem like leftovers. If you’re going to make a film of a Christian allegory, go for broke and do it. Don’t try and spice it up with action and more action to the detriment of the Message. In fact, going at it half-assed merely makes certainly obvious that actions and bits of dialogue can work better on the page than on the screen.
The biggest problem, though, is the direction. I’m no fan of the Shrek franchise, since I think it’s cute but overhyped and simplistic. And one of the co-directors is here helming this film. I think one of his problems is he doesn’t know how to direct people. Notice everything I mentioned up top as far as actors go are voice actors, or established actors like Swinton, who really doesn’t need much in the way of direction. “Be evil as shit” is sufficient. But four child actors? They need direction. They need to be told, for example, that when you walk out of a wardrobe and into a winter wonderland, you’re supposed to at least act like you’re a little cold. It’s pretty freaking hilarious to watch Edmund (Keynes) standing there, able to see his own breath, looking like he’s perfectly warm to begin with, while the White Witch talks about wanting to get him warm. Or when the kids grab fur coats from the wardrobe…it’s pointless, since we’ve just seen one of them fall in the snow and enjoy it. Have you ever fallen in snow? It sucks. So only on two occasions does anybody act like it’s cold…so that’s not good. And here’s another note: when you’ve walked into another dimension, a little bit of wonderment might be in order. I mean, I’ll buy that Lucy thinks nothing of it, because she’s young and at the point where the magical can still sort of happen, but the older children walk in, go basically, “Oh look, we’re in another dimension. Sweet.” And that’s it.
Also, another major problem is that the film wishes it was Lord of the Rings. It’s not. It lacks any of the scale of the franchise it so desperately wants to ape. Somehow Peter Jackson managed to make Middle Earth a real place. Narnia, it seems, looks like nothing special. The only thing that’s epic in any way is the final battle, and that also smacks of desperation since it looks like Jumanji Goes to War. In fact, some shots are lifted right out of Jackson’s trilogy. Most telling is the overhead travelling shot of the party as they move over a high ridge–sorry, but three kids and two beavers lacks the majesty and triumph of seeing that scene with hobbits, a dwarf, a wizard, an elf, etc. etc. etc. A scene in which the party gets off the road to avoid their pursuers had us joking that the White Witch must “smell the ring.” It’s sad, really, that instead of letting this movie be its own thing, they so obviously cowered in The Shadow of Jackson.
And here’s the major thing: where’s the thrill of the first film that leaves you waiting for Prince Caspian? Nowhere. What could have been a triumphant entry in a new major fantasy franchise arrives bland and undercooked. Its crime isn’t that it is bad, but it’s simply…not good. Mediocre is the right word. If you absolutely must see it on the big screen–and really, despite the promise of the trailer, you’re not missing much if you have a decent sized TV at home–then catch a matinee. Don’t pay full price.