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

Walt Disney Pictures / Walden Media

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Andrew Adamson
Writers: Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (based on the book by C.S. Lewis)
Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Kiran Shah, James Cosmo, Liam Neeson, Ray Winstone, Dawn French, Rupert Everett.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fine film with much to be proud of. Its only shortcomings arise from sky-high expectations and the nebulous yardstick used to gauge them. With the hammerlock Peter Jackson put on the fantasy genre, every step is measured against near-perfection, and with legions of fans waiting with baited breath, the margin for error is nil. The high-wire act performed by director Andrew Adamson and his crew doesn't quite astound the way The Lord of the Rings did; we've seen it before, after all, and in more challenging variations. But with that reality acknowledged, the results still merit an enthusiastic round of applause. For not only does Adamson do right by C.S. Lewis' beloved book, but he sets the stage for a very promising new franchise.

Certainly, Lewis is much easier to translate than Tolkien. His prose is crisper, his plots simpler, and his narrative flow smoother. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an extremely accessible book, written for Lewis' goddaughter, and capable of being enjoyed by any bright eight-year-old. (Contrast that with The Lord of the Rings, whose lengthy ramblings can confound all but the most dedicated readers.) Adamson's task, then, is not to render Lewis more appetizing (as Jackson did with Tolkien), but to preserve the book's innate appeal for the big screen. This he accomplishes with considerable skill, making only minimal changes to take advantage of the medium's visual demands, and treating the bulk of the text as scripture. He presents us with the magical land of Narnia, populated by mythic creatures and ruled by a thinly disguised Christian allegory named Aslan (the lion of the title, voiced by Liam Neeson). Adamson, whose background is in visual effects, charges fearlessly ahead in bringing Narnia to life, and while many of the details are obviously CGI, they retain the sense of wonder that they held in the book. Talking animals, for example, are a staple of this world, from Aslan down to the smallest mouse and ferret. They appear on-screen as major -- and indeed beloved -- characters, and need to interact with human performers on an extended scale. The artifice is always there: Aslan looks like a cunning effect rather than a real lion, while figures such as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) routinely betray their pixilated origins. And yet we still believe in them; their spirit and personality are adroitly captured, and while the tools used to bring them to life leave a mark, the film's unswerving dedication to their essence overcomes any objections.

So is it with the rest of Narnia, created on sets and blue screens that nevertheless invoke the potent sparks of Lewis' imagination. The icy castle of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who has enslaved Narnia in Aslan's absence, captures a palpable sense of dread, while the wintry forest around it turns slowly but unmistakably green with the lion's return. Such elements are inspirations, partially for their technical expertise, but primarily because they perfectly encapsulate the key moments of the book. We believe in them because Adamson and his crew do, not because the effects have tricked us.

The director is on somewhat slipperier footing with his human actors; here, his lack of experience shows through sometimes, and the literal approach to Lewis' text results in occasional patches of clunky dialogue. But such a good cast has been assembled, and so enthusiastically do they pursue their work, that it scarcely matters. Chief among them are the four Pevensie children -- Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) -- who have been sent to the English countryside to avoid the Blitz, and who discover Narnia through a magic wardrobe on their host's estate. The script fleshes them out in ways only sketched in Lewis' work, giving each a full-blooded sense of personality. Peter, the eldest child, longs to join the fight against Germany despite being too young; the journey to Narnia provides him with the heroics he desires in a land where his age is no longer a liability. Edmund, the most morally compromised of the four, must tread a delicate path through betrayal and redemption without appearing contradictory, while Susan provides a voice of rationality that can't quite believe it when the woodland critters start talking to them. The toughest role is perhaps Lucy's, the youngest and wisest of the four, who must provide sound advice and uncompromised morals while avoiding overt precociousness. Henley embodies the character like she was born to it, making hers the most memorable performance in the film. But the other three children come swiftly behind, turning in expert portrayals that will have longtime fans nodding in approval.

The more fantastic characters are equally impressive. Swinton's White Witch is a knockout, as expected: delivered with chilly detachment and an unsettling bloodlessness that makes a nice departure from traditional villain histrionics. Another standout is James McAvoy, playing the faun Tumnus who befriends Lucy when she first arrives in Narnia. The dynamics between them are extremely delicate: an adult male figure interacting with a little girl can draw down The Creepy like a bolt of lightning. Yet McAvoy brings a gentle compassion to the role, conveying a sense of innocence and goodwill rather than predatory indulgence.

Indeed, the rest of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe adroitly follows his example, finding the right tone and sticking to it. Though fast-paced and exciting, it's not too intense for younger viewers, nor will it bore older audience members by talking below their level. Adamson preserves the story's religious overtones without cramming them down our throats, and provides a nice segue from modern England to medieval Narnia with a few subtle touches of the pastoral. As an accomplishment, the film suffers from only the slightest of letdowns, emphasizing accuracy over true transcendence. But with the trail already blazed by The Lord of the Rings, there's only so much it can do to blow our socks off. It can be forgiven, then, for hedging its bets a bit. It loves its source, it honors its creator, and it gives the fans an adaptation worthy of their devotion. That's more than most movies even pretend to... and there may be plenty more to come.

Review published 11.27.2005.

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