The abuses of enchantment
Remember how the Harry Potter series got off to a cumbersome start? Too big for its director and cast with actors not yet secure in their roles, the first movie wasn’t all bad, but it demonstrated that the sophisticated children’s-book series had some growing up to do as a film franchise. Director Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe suffers similarly. 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. It’s a big, boring morality lesson.
Relocated to a country mansion after their London 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), pops into a large wardrobe closet, comes out its back into a snowy world of supposed enchantment and tries to convince her siblings that there’s a land of strange creatures and snowballs just beyond the professor’s vast collection of fur coats.
The others don’t believe her at first but 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 Turkish delight instead of silver, giving himself over to 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, and assist the God-like lion Aslan (voiced by a lethargic Liam Neeson) in defeating the White Witch and making Narnia a proper inspiration for Sunday-school lessons well into the new millennium.
Because I read the books and didn’t like them all that much when I was a kid, my chances of truly enjoying the movie are somewhat diminished. But 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. And the mighty Aslan looks like your garden-variety zoo lion going for a stroll.
As for human performances, Henley does shine in her role, and it’s a shame that equally charismatic children weren’t found to back her up. The moments 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 is otherwise not very frightening.
What may be frightening, especially for the little ones, is that Narnia has some serious violence (notably the infamous Aslan-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 Saw or anything like that, but a lot of moms and dads were scrambling for the exits with their screaming children.
Judging by the huge opening-weekend box office, it’s safe to assume that The Chronicles of Narnia will have other big-screen chapters. With another director and some acting lessons for the kids, perhaps future adventures will have a little more pop.