Tuesday, December 20
An Afternoon Well Spent
Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
PG. 140 minutes.
Beaucorp spoilers ahead. You Have Been Warned.
I’ve scoured the film literature, the press releases, and anything else I could get my hands on, but I was quite disconcerted to discover there is no evidence whatsoever that the new Chronicles of Narnia movie actually had any representatives from the Faun and Dryad Anti-Defamation League (FDADL) on-set during production. No doubt the exploitation lawsuits (Nikabrik, Nikabrik and Ginarrbrik, Attorneys at Law) from young dwarves and elderly talking beavers will start rolling in.
Seriously, folks, the first thing I want to say about the new Narnia movie was that it was truly an afternoon well spent. While I'm not sure how Lewis would react to twenty-first century Hollywood, such a convivial soul as he would have certainly valued such an afternoon of good clean fun. Let's bear that in mind before we subject film Narnia to the death of a thousand reviewer cuts.
Now, putting on my critic’s hat, the picture is still a rosy one. Reviews have remarked on the film’s overall merit but tend to zero in instead on the film’s problems: Lucy’s purportedly inexplicable hug for the Professor, over-argumentative siblings, an over-powerful White Witch, a wimpy Peter, the infamous ice-flow sequence… I’d read about them all, but even going into the film knowing what to look for, these flaws are awfully hard to spot, if they’re there at all.
There’s the bigger question, though: is it as good as the private Narnia we’ve all got inside our heads? If it isn’t, director Andrew Adamson has gotten about as darn close as we could ever hope. While he has not literally re-created Pauline Baynes’s illustrations in 3-D, he has provided an equally compelling and remarkably faithful interpretation of Lewis’s world, while at the same time tailoring it to the potentialities and strengths of the big screen.
Adamson has used his special effects liberally but not imprudently. The film, by its nature, is awash with CGI, but it hardly feels so. Aslan, the centaurs, the fauns and the whole mythological menagerie of Narnia do not look like technological marvels—they look like very real creatures captured quite naturally on camera. We are also spared the grubby steel-grey sequences now tres hip in Hollywood—everything is as bright and beautiful as a medieval miniature and joyous to behold.
The script preserves most of the best lines from the book, adds a one or two good ones, a few serviceable ones, but nothing remotely bad. Most importantly, the script is on par with the visuals, avoiding one of the problems of the film version Lord of the Rings. While still possessing Tolkien’s wit, it was also filled with too many gnomic utterances, people silently staring off into the distance, and Aragorn screaming. (I still enjoyed seeing them, but you folks have to admit Aragorn does angst a lot.)
We spend a leisurely stretch towards the beginning (if the term leisurely can be applied to a Luftwaffe air raid) establishing the world where the children come from, the gritty, grubby and frightening world of war-torn Britain. The realism of this sequence throws us off-balance, and makes us expect more than the usual kitschy fantasy. It also reminds us the Pevensie kids have faced fear before, even if they are from Finchley. (All extra-canonical, but good additions all the same).
Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) is a bit player, but a good one. (His hairdo is a little bit crazy, though the book does mention him having a whole mess of very odd facial hair). The whole theater laughed when we heard the immortal question, "What do they teach them at these schools?" Initially, I was concerned that he seemed a little too credulous—at least for an audience who doesn’t know the Wardrobe’s backstory—of Lucy’s tale, but a brilliant little postscript interspersed between the credits serves to neatly balance that out and hint at the events of the Magician’s Nephew.
The Pevensie children are perfectly cast. They actually look like kids, unlike so many TV “teens.” Lucy (Georgie Henley) is the absolute standout, and inhabits her role brilliantly. She is lovable without being schmaltzy, solemn when need be, and always valiant, as she would come to be known. Both she and Susan remain distinctly feminine while nonetheless exuding a spirit of adventure and strength. Edmund (Skandar Keynes) is well-played, a little nasty, a little confused, a little bit pitiable, and ultimately repentant. The backstory provided for his treachery gives his actions texture and believability, but also makes no attempt to exonerate or downplay what he has done.
Susan (Anna Popplewell) may seem argumentative and overly sarcastic, though this seems in keeping with her absence in The Last Battle. In spite of this, her relationship with Lucy is both touching and humorous, and the two of them carry one of the film’s most moving sequences as they weep over the dead body of Aslan on the stone table.
Peter (William Moseley), however, is mildly disappointing. As battle begins, he takes on his regal role with the magnificence he would become famous for, but up to that point he is more reluctant than I would expect, more reluctant than the book would have it. In all fairness, this has more to do with his strength as a big brother protecting his family than his weakness as a future king. His performance is one of the film’s few major liabilities. Even so, he’s decent and will doubtlessly grow into the role as Prince Caspian rolls round.
On that note, much has been made about the Pevensies’ lack of English manners and sibling bickering throughout the film. They do argue a bit, maybe more than in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I recently re-read Prince Caspian and found that the four Pevensies were almost as contentious there as they were here. Set against the backdrop of the film, it’s not that big of a problem, though.
Lucy's performance was definitely the best in the film. The White Witch, Mr. Tumnus, and Aslan definitely qualify as a three-way tie for second place. The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) scared the crud out of me. Tilda is brilliantly cast: physically, she is beautiful in a way that is both faintly unnerving and not quite normal. She doesn’t look quite human; there is something preternatural about her. Tilda fits the book’s characterization while bringing in something fresh and icily interesting to a role that might have become a scenery-chewing exercise à la Cruella de Vil in the hands of a lesser actress. What is more important, I think, is that Tilda’s Witch is so believably nice when we first come across her, rather than just creepy. This makes the remainder of her performance even more alarming, reminding us that the glamour of evil can be remarkably persuasive under the right—or perhaps wrong—circumstances.
Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) was also a delight. Now here’s a fellow who could have stepped straight out of a Pauline Baynes ink drawing. He exudes a gentle warmth and amiability and by the end of the movie he’s even had a chance to be a mite bit heroic. Incidentally, they say James McAvoy and Georgie Henley got to be quite good friends on set, and the big-brother, little-sister chemistry definitely shows up on screen.
As regards Aslan, all your fears of a silly animated Disney Lion should be set aside now. Someone described the joint performance as looking like “a lion inhabited by an archbishop,” but that misses the point. He exudes, not ecclesial hierarchy, but a certain natural majesty. You couldn’t have wished for a more noble Beast. I’m not sure what else to say about the CGI lion with Liam Neeson’s voice, but there was something a little eerie about watching the performance. I had just come from Mass that morning and watching Aslan’s via Dolorosa to the Stone Table put the morning’s events in a rather startling light. Lewis’s Lion was the result of a thought-experiment which put Christ in animal form: and the way Aslan appears on screen is remarkably convincing: majestic as a Pantocrator but yet strangely lovable, in the best sense. But scarcely cuddly or safe. He is, as Mr. Tumnus reminds us, not a tame Lion.
There are a few curious tweaks here and there: they’re worth mentioning, but they hardly spoil the overall picture. The White Witch’s death could have been a bit more dramatic, while the scene where Aslan liberates the statues from the Witch’s palace is surprisingly condensed. More significantly, the dialogue explaining the Deep Magic is handled slightly differently from the book. Some have complained it sounds a little too much like The Force from Star Wars, but there’s one line in the whole film that would suggest that, and you’d only think so if you really sat down and picked it apart. Furthermore, Aslan’s (non-textual, but still appropriate) exclamation that He was there “when the Deep Magic was written!” definitely makes clear who’s in charge here. Admitted, the White Witch doesn’t seem as freaked out by Aslan as in the books, and perhaps that is a little unfortunate, but some of the hysterics Lewis describes might have translated poorly onto screen. A few nervous twitches here and there might not have been a bad addition, but it’s not worth worrying about.
(Admitted, the denoument of the Infamous Ice Flow Scene is a little silly--if only because of hypothermia--but it's over with quick enough, and easily excused. The shots of the waterfall thawing were kinda cool, though.)
The rest of Narnia’s creatures are remarkably well-realized. It’s hard to talk about film Narnia without referring to the Peter Jackson movie trilogy. There are a few obvious nods to it scattered throughout the film, which doesn't bother me that much. One needn’t reinvent the wheel too many times. Lewis’s books are masterpieces of economically elegant and charming narrative, just as Tolkien’s are epic in their grandeur. Lewis’s mind worked differently from Tolkien's; his creation of Narnia was more impressionistic than Tolkien’s near-obsessive charting of centuries of history. Adamson has to fill numerous visual gaps which Lewis never needed to consider, because a book and a movie work differently.
He has done a fine job. The Beavers are remarkably convincing and make a cute couple. Dawn French and Ray Winston occasionally verge on burlesque with their cockney accents, but all-in-all they’re really quite charming. (And while I’d been concerned Mrs. Beaver was a bit too mothering in the face of danger, it’s all there in the book—in fact, she even tried to pack the sewing machine when they’re about to make a run for it). In fact, I can just about forgive Dawn French for her turn in The Vicar of Dibley after seeing this. Adamson sails dangerously close to Tolkienizing Narnia by fitting out his centaurs and fauns with an arsenal full of breastplates, helmets and lances—Lewis is silent on the subject outside of the Pevensie armory—but this is the most welcome, and least distracting, of his innovations. Unlike the tediously grubby weaponry which dominates Jackson’s vision of Tolkien, like everything else in Narnia there is very real romance and chivalry amid the equally real carnage of the battlefield.
There are numerous intruiguing little touches, like the reservist female centaurs (like female carabinieri, I’d not known they existed) with their bows and arrows, or Tumnus’s bookshelf with the now-infamous text Is Man a Myth? depicted with the bibliophilic elegance of a Victorian zoological text. He also goes a bit beyond the bounds of normal fantasy iconography by tossing us a few visual curve-balls: the White Witch’s art-deco chariot, a wonderful Cair Paravel equal parts Medicean Florence and Minas Tirith with a bit of Portuguese belle-epoque garden folly in there somewhere; and the home of Mr. Tumnus, with a little bit of Jugendstil here and there to make life interesting. Unlike Jackson’s films, where some have complained that evil got all the coolest weaponry and visuals, while the White Witch may be glamorous in the way wickedness usually is, Aslan’s forces are ultimately far more beautiful and terrible to behold.
(The dryads were a little odd, though. The one visual I would have changed was the whole flower-petal thing. I always figured they looked, well, a bit more human. But I'm being pedantic.)
And then there is the landscape. I was recently chatting with Lizzy from Alle Psalite (incidentally, the deputy head of the Faun and Dryad Anti-Defamation League’s Gonzaga branch), and she was struck by the largeness of the Narnian landscape, grander and more sweeping than she had imagined it. This may have more to do with the small-screen BBC adaptations we grew up with—beloved, yes, but lower-budget for sure. Admitted, we all know Narnia is but one-fourth the size of the smallest Calormene province, but Adamson was wise to pump up the scenery so gloriously to fill the big screen. It reminds us that in addition to being a tale of four children, it is a tale of four children who become kings and heroes and do quite a few things that would only seem possible in the sharp, fresh, invigorating air of Narnia.
Another reason to be happy is we have at last a family film which shows heroism and moral choices with the appropriate gravity, and will have something to please even the most divergent gaggle of parents and kids—knights in armor, talking animals, valiant young ladies in long flowing dresses, God, sacrifice, mercy, redemption, forgiveness and love. And a refreshing absence of burps, farting, sight gags, scatological comedy, and teens who look about 26.
Go see Narnia. That’s all I can say. Go see it, sit back, enjoy, and go back to a fine supper of sardines, buttered toast, and tea. Maybe you'll even run into a faun on the way home.