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THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars: Georgie Henley, William Moseley, Skander Keynes, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Liam Neeson
Director: Andrew Adamson
Audio:  DTS and Dolby 5.1
Video:  Widescreen Color 2.35:1
Studio: Walt Disney
Features:  See review
Length: 150 minutes
Release Date:  December 12, 2006

“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval cannot be adults themselves.  When I became a man, I put aside childish things, including the desire to be very grown up.”

C.S. Lewis

Film ***

There are two great friendships between men of similar backgrounds in 20th century Britain that would change the arts forever.  When schoolboys John Lennon and Paul McCartney met at a party in Liverpool, no one would have guessed that they would change popular music forever.  When Oxford professors C.S. “Jack” Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien complained that there were no folktales or fantasies stories for their generation,   Lewis was well-known as a radio personality and a modern voice of Christian life, but neither was known as fiction writers until late in life.  They wrote two very different tales, with this one being primarily about four children sent to the English countryside during the Nazi bombing of the early Second World War.  There in a stately mansion they discover a wardrobe which leads into another world, Narnia.  There they are told of a prophecy of two sons of Adam and two sons of Eve working with Aslan the lion to defeat the self-appointed queen of Narnia, a land which has had winter for a hundred years, but never a Christmas in that time.

While financing a Narnia movie may seem a no-brainer after the critical and commercial success of The Lord of the Rings, the makers had several huge challenges ahead of them.  Lewis did not write as nearly a detailed tale as Tolkien, leaving much of the scenery and details of the great battle to the readers’ imaginations.  Tolkien did not mind spending several pages describing the color of tree leaves.  Jackson and company had to trim the long LOTR even for three long movies, but in this production, the movie makers had to fill in many details just to make the movie at all.  And they faced the same challenge as Peter Jackson in that he had to bring a well-known and loved tale to the big screen that would appeal to the uninitiated and also those who knew the stories backwards and forwards.

It was appropriate that Andrew Adamson, who directed Shrek, would tackle this children’s tale, just as King Kong lover Peter Jackson would film LOTR.  And in both cases, they were filming their first epic productions, and both in New Zealand.  This venture is much simpler and less majestic, but then the story is, too.  And we get to meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who are as fun as we would expect from Shrek’s director.

An additional challenge was that this was primarily a children’s story about children, told from their perspective.  LOTR was really a fairy tale for adults.  We learn from the extras included on the second disc that great time was taken to cast the four children and the producers made clear from day one that the children would enjoy their hard work of six months’ duration.  In fact the four children were cast largely because they seemed to have the same personalities and spirits as the original characters, in addition to their charisma and acting ability.  They also had to work as an ensemble, much like the original Star Wars cast of largely unknown but excellently cast actors.   The children are especially well-cast and lovable, with Georgie Henley as Lucy being the most believable and adorable at the same time.

Unfortunately two seasoned actors reduce the overall impact of the film.  While Tilda Swinton was the first choice to play the White Witch, her costume is so much larger than she is that it makes her appear puny and helpless.  The production folks also did not want her to be a Cruella Deville-type of villainess, but somehow they did not define what she should be instead.  She is perfect in her opening scenes with Edmund, but as things start to go Aslan’s way, she seems lost in how to react to this threat.  We wait for a devil-woman but instead she just seems confused.  Also, while Liam Neeson’s acting talent is unquestioned, and I think he was a good choice for Aslan, his voice is far too mild and unthreatening for us to believe he is a mighty lion.  Just a little more bass or some filtering would have solved this problem.  Since two of the most important characters are not believable, the film’s overall impact is greatly diminished.

Much was made in the press about the Christian imagery and themes of the story, but I don’t see them overemphasized in this retelling.  There is the lamppost which is the “guiding light” near the wardrobe, and Aslan sacrifices himself, but much like the Passion of the Christ many critics are either skeptical of Christianity, ignorant of it, or they just did not bother to even watch the film at all.  Reporters in USA Today for example were falling all over themselves about the Christian imagery of the film before it was even released.    Some small details of the original have been changed as many critics have pointed out since the theatrical release, but they do not diminish the impact overall.

In this extended addition, I must confess that I had trouble locating the extra 16 minutes.  They seemed to neither add to nor subtract from the film’s overall impact. 

Video ***1/2

No flaws that I can see.  CGI plays a strong role, especially with Aslan, and the transfer to DVD preserves the excellent workmanship and cinematography of the production.  I only deducted half of one star since, well, it is just not spectacular as other recent films of the genre.

Audio ***1/2

The rear speakers are not used nearly to their full potential, but the overall sound quality is superb.  The rear channels are used most effectively when the children are running from McCready, the slightly daft housekeeper, when we hear her footsteps going from side to side across the rear stereo spectrum.  The 5.1 mix is excellent but naturally the DTS is louder and fuller in the bass range especially.  There is no Dolby stereo mix.

Features ****

This set contains some but not all of the same special features as the original two-disc set plus two more discs which are in many ways better than any previously released features.

Disc One has the extended cut of the film, plus “The Bloopers of Narnia,” “Discover Narnia Fun Facts,” and the same audio commentaries as the original disc.  Disc Two has “Chronicles of a Director,” “The Children’s Magical Journey,” and “Evolution of an Epic,”  “Creatures of the World,” “Explore Narnia,” and “Legends in Time.”  Absent are the “Anatomy of a Scene: the Melting River”;” Cinematic Storytellers" - eight film diaries from eight members of the film team; “C.S. Lewis: From One Man's Mind".   It is odd that if the features could be presented on two discs before, that some would be taken out for a four disc set.  The omitted features were not unforgettable but still of high quality.  

Disc Three is a marvelous world-premiere special on C.S. Lewis, which is largely told from his point of view as if he were reading a letter to children.  We meet many British experts on C.S. Lewis who are all very knowledgeable but also warm and witty, and the special is of top quality overall as entertainment and learning, much like the better History Channel specials.  For example, we meet a clergyman who tells us that Lewis’ grandfather was a minister, and we see at his rectory a doorknob with the Lion of St. Mark, which was actually at eye level for a child and may have inspired Lewis consciously or not to create Aslan the lion.

Disc Four is all new and includes a 2 ½ hour special called Visualizing The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe which is as detailed and extensive as anyone could want for a film.  This disc also includes another Anatomy of a Scene: this time it is Behind the Battle.  There is also an Art of Narnia gallery, in case you want to see even more of the film.   Much of this repeats information from Disc Two but it is presented in a split screen so we can see the film and the behind-the-scenes discussion at the same time. 

One disappointment, however, is that the nice color booklet and postcards that came with the two-disc set are absent. There is a pocket for them that contains only an ad for a website and a rebate coupon.

Summary:

Not on the same level as some other recent fantasy productions, but still a worthy production of the immortal Chronicles.  The extended addition’s special features, especially the all-new program on Lewis himself, shines on DVD.  Children of any age will be enchanted.

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