Sunday school cinema
The Harry Potter series got off to a cumbersome start with its first installment—too big for its director and featuring a cast not yet secure in their roles. The film wasn’t all bad, but it demonstrated that the sophisticated children’s book series had some growing up to do as a film franchise. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe suffers a similar fate. Ponderous, full of bland performances (with one exception) and quite sloppy in places, this is a franchise lacking the surefootedness of, say, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a big, boring morality lesson.
Relocated to a country mansion after their England home is bombed during the war, the Pevensie children are restless and trying to pass the time. Roaming the halls of Professor Kirke’s (Jim Broadbent) vast and spooky estate, the best they can manage for fun is a game of hide and seek. The youngest, Lucy (played winningly by Georgie Henley), chooses a large wardrobe closet as her hiding place, comes out the back of it into a snowy world of supposed enchantment and tries to convince her siblings that there’s a land of strange creatures and snowballs beyond the professor’s vast collection of fur coats.
The others don’t believe her at first, but they eventually find themselves wandering around Narnia in oversized fur pelts. Youngest brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes), essentially the Judas of the story, sells out his siblings for the sweet treat of Turkish Delight, instead of silver, offering himself into the hands of Narnia’s White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who has major conflicts with the Children of Eden. Oldest brother Peter (William Moseley) and elder sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) join in the quest to retrieve their brother. They assist the Jesus-like lion Aslan (voiced by a lethargic Liam Neeson) in defeating the White Witch, making Narnia proper inspiration for Sunday school lessons well into the new millennium.
Having read the books when I was a kid and not liking them all that much, my chances of truly enjoying Narnia are somewhat diminished. Rabid fans of the books will probably be rapturous in seeing the story come to life, an admittedly decent replacement for that lousy 1979 cartoon.
A big part of the problem with this film is that the land of Narnia isn’t all that interesting to look at. The locations, from the bland snowy forest just beyond the wardrobe to the dull valley where the film’s final battle takes place, lack enchantment. The talking animals, including a couple of beavers who become guides for the children, don’t integrate well with the live action. The mighty Aslan looks like your garden variety zoo lion going for a stroll.
As for performances, Henley does shine in her role, and it’s a shame equally charismatic children weren’t found to back her up. The passages of the film that work best consist of Henley’s Lucy on her own, consorting with creatures in the snowy forest. When she’s hanging out with her brothers and sister, things become a bit of a drag. Swinton (in a role originally earmarked for Nicole Kidman) fails to make the White Witch all that terrifying or memorable. She associates menace with volume, which can be a little hard on the ears but not all that terrifying.
Look out with the little ones. Narnia has some pretty major violence (especially a sacrifice scene that brings Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to mind) and some fairly nasty shock moments to boot. I heard a lot of little kids crying at the screening I attended. It’s not exactly Saw, but a lot of moms and dads were scrambling for the exits with screaming children.
Based on the huge opening weekend box office, it’s safe to assume The Chronicles of Narnia will have other big-screen chapters. Get another director and some acting lessons for the younger actors. With that, perhaps future adventures will have a little more pop.