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THE SILVER CHAIR

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: David Thwaites, Camilla Power, Tom Baker, Richard Henders, Barbara Kellerman
Director: Alex Kirby
Audio: English 2.0 mono
Subtitles: none
Video: color, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Home Vision
Features: stills gallery, interactive game
Length: 168 minutes
Release Date: August 27, 2002

"We've got to start by finding the ruined city of the Giants.  Aslan said so."

"Got to start by finding it, have we?  Aren't we allowed to start by looking for it?"

Film ***

"Jack" Lewis was a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at the dignified British institution of Cambridge University.  Somewhat less formally, he was also a successful fantasy novelist, of all things.  His early works included such tales as the satirical The Screwtape Letters and the science fiction trilogy of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.  But Lewis is most revered today for his classic tales of a fantasy world accessible from within the confines of an old wardrobe.  Those tales, beginning in 1950 with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, comprise The Chronicles of Narnia, possibly one of the most beloved series of all children's literature.

Since its initial publication, The Chronicles of Narnia has made the transition off the printed page a number of times.  There was a 10-episode television series in 1967.  There was also an animated film in 1979.  Both productions focused on the first book in the series.  However, it was not until the 1980's, when England's BBC began a collaboration with the PBS children's series Wonderworks, that an earnest effort was made to translate several of these beloved stories into live-action films.  Three films were eventually produced.  The first was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a faithful re-telling of the first book of the series.  The second film was Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a combination of the second and third books in the series.  The third and final film was The Silver Chair, a tale of the search for the lost heir of Narnia.

For those readers not in the know, Narnia is a wondrous, magical land populated by mythical creatures and chivalrous people.  Even many of the animals are capable of speech.  As The Silver Chair begins, the current king of this noble land is Caspian the Tenth.  But, the youthful boy of Prince Caspian is a weary and saddened old king by this film, for his beloved queen was poisoned by a serpent many years ago, and their only son, Prince Rilian, was lost in an attempt to seek vengeance upon this serpent.  Now, in the twilight of his years, King Caspian wishes to journey into the seas once more in the hopes of finding Aslan, the mythical Lion of Narnia.  Perhaps the wise Aslan will be able to advise him on who should rule after Caspian's passing.

As in the previous stories of The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan does intervene from afar, albeit somewhat indirectly.  To assist in the crisis in Narnia, Aslan calls forth a boy and a girl from the world of humans.  The boy is Eustace Scrubb (David Thwaites), who had partaken in the Dawn Treader's wonderful odyssey in his previous visit to Narnia.  The girl is Jill Pole (Camilla Power), a newcomer to these lands.  The two children accidentally enter Aslan's realm through a magical portal at their school one day.  When they become separated briefly, Aslan appears before Jill and explains to her the reason for which he has summoned both children to Narnia. 

Prince Rilian, it appears, is not dead but merely lost.  Jill must re-join Eustace and aid him in rescuing the lost Prince, or die trying - that is Aslan's task for the children.  While Aslan cannot help them directly, he offers four signs by which the children might complete their quest.  Of the first, Eustace must quickly greet an old friend upon his arrival back in Narnia.  Of the second, Jill and Eustace must travel north to the ruined city of the Giants.  Of the third, they are to follow the instructions written in stone.  Of the fourth and last sign, they will eventually meet someone who will ask them to do something in Aslan's name, and they must do it.

So, it is with these four signs that Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb set out upon their adventure.  The children are initially assisted by friendly owls and eventually gain a traveling companion, the gravely pessimistic Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum.  Their journey will take them from the fields and elegant castles of Narnia to the barren wastelands of the Giants' realm and the house of Harfang and ultimately to the Underland of the Lady of the Green Kirtle.  Along this odyssey, they will encounter dragons, giants, gnomes, and several manners of sylvan talking animals.  They will have to overcome sorcery and imprisonment, often with little more than their wits to save them.  It has all the makings of a grand, epic adventure.

Indeed, fans of the original Narnia books will feel very much at home here, for The Silver Chair is quite faithful to the novel.  Other than a few minor omissions in the plot (for the sake of pacing), the storyline is very true not only to the letter but also the spirit of the text.

On the downside, The Silver Chair was not a huge production.  In fact, the combined budget of the three Narnia films probably did not even amount to a significant fraction of a typical Harry Potter film.  The Silver Chair is also a film from the pre-CGI effects era, and consequently, the eye-candy quotient in it is very low.  In truth, the special effects are pretty laughable.  Some scenes are very blatantly blue screen shots, and many of the talking animals are obviously little people in cute and fuzzy costumes.  A good portion of the budget was used to create the enormous animatronics robot which portrays Aslan, albeit a bit stiffly.  No one will mistake it for an actual lion, although the head is realistic and does demonstrate a good capacity for motion and expressiveness.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a dragon and a giant serpent which appear later in the film, as neither is very convincing.

Suffice it to say that the special effects in The Silver Chair are about on par with those seen in another long-running BBC production, Dr. Who.  In fact, there is a common link - Tom Baker, who plays Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, was one of the many actors who portrayed Dr. Who!

The Silver Chair also has glacial pacing, or lack thereof, really.  This film moves along at a dignified crawl and, except for a portion of the climactic Underland sequence, has very little action.  American audiences expecting a thrill-ride of a film will be disappointed, for the film's decor and acting are somewhat stagy (as is typical of BBC productions), and the film is mostly dialogue-driven during much of its nearly three-hour length.

And yet, despite its budgetary shortcomings, The Silver Chair is a highly enjoyable film.  Its faithful and gripping storyline more than makes up for an absence of white-knuckled action sequences.  Of the three BBC-Wonderworks co-productions, this is probably the finest.  Whether as an enchanting introduction to the land of Narnia for newcomers or as a re-kindling of fond childhood memories for others, The Silver Chair is a nice reminder that the prettiest CGI graphics will not save a lousy movie, while a solid and imaginative story can easily overcome even the constraints of a public television budget.

Video ** 1/2

The Silver Chair is presented in a full-screen format and was originally photographed on videotape, not film.  The image is mildly soft and at times a little pixelated.  Colors sometimes look a little washed out in some daylight scenes or a little muddy at night.  Overall, an okay transfer, but nothing spectacular.

Audio **

The Silver Chair is presented in Dolby Stereo with a merely serviceable audio.  Some scenes, such as the climatic Underland sequence, are loud but could have benefited from a surround 5.1 audio or a more aggressive bass.  However, since the film is mostly dialogue-driven, this audio track is adequate.

Features *

There isn't much in the way of extras here.  The stills gallery has only six production photos.  There is also a trivia game which tests your knowledge of the film (or book).  Complete it, and you'll get a code word which will unlock a special treat at the Home Vision website.

Trivia - Clive Staples Lewis was not very fond of his birthname and much preferred the nickname Jack, after his childhood dog.

Summary:

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of the most beloved children's fantasy series, and this BBC/Wonderworks co-production of The Silver Chair is a very faithful adaptation of the C.S. Lewis book.  It is fine entertainment for the entire family and should please most fans of the Narnia books, too.