Sunday, December 11, 2005
REVIEW: Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005)
Evidently I've missed another memo from the governing bodies of online film criticism, specifically the one that apparently ordered a majority of my bretheren to open every review of "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" (lets just say "Narnia" from now on, deal?) in basically the exact same manner: A paragraph-length breakdown of the critic's familiarity with the book, opinion of such and opinion of the fantasy genre as whole, followed optionally by either A.) pithy comments about the "issue" of the story's allegorical Christian subtext or B.) quick appraisal of the film as measured against "Harry Potter" and "Lord of The Rings." Or both.
Much as I'd like to be different and skip all that, on the off chance that I really would be breaking some rule by doing so we'll just get it off nice and quickly-like:
Pior experience: Read the book several times as a kid. Dug it. Read completed series eventually, generally dug it. Saw BBC miniseries version, saw animated version. Not bad.
Christian allegory: Chill out. It's not a sermon. It's not propaganda. It's not "The Passion." It's not even the goddamn "VeggieTales." The only way you're going to be "offended" by what allegory there is to be found is if you're "offended" by even the barest hint of anything being even vaugely Christian, in which case you're as intolerant as the people you probably think you're against. Grow up.
The others: Better right-out-of-the-gate (and much more solid as a stand-alone film) than "Potter" was, not as perfect as "Rings," not really fair to put these three side-by-side to begin with. The more fitting comparison's would really be Frank L. Baum's "Oz" cycle, or Lewis Carrol, really.
As unfair as it may be (see above) to hold C.S. Lewis' efficient, unrepentently youth-targeted fairytale up against either the muscular mythmaking of "Rings" or the jaunty modernism of "Potter," it has to be acknowledged that the success of those films are the reason that this one exists at all. It takes a lot to change Hollywood's whole way of looking at a genre, but 11 Oscars and 3 years worth of boxoffice domination is more than a lot. Bearing that in mind... thanks again, Peter Jackson.
More immediate thanks, though, to Andrew Adamson... who knew the man most frequently credited as the director of "Shrek" had this level of movie in him? A cast made 98% comprised of children, animals and digital/puppet creatures... most of it outdoors and in hyppereal fantasy evironments? Giant-scale war scenes? Entire passages of dialogue dominated by a child under the age of 10? This is a HUGELY difficult production, and there's hardly a technical flaw or wooden moment showing. And it's the most visually stunning film of the year so far, rich, colorful, sprawling and (most impressively of all) completely different as a visual experience from any other recent film in the genre. Bravo.
The premise remains as classically-rooted as ever: Four British WWII-refugee siblings (two boys, two girls) living in the care of a mysteries "Professor" stumble through a more mysterious wardrobe into the fantasy kingdom of Narnia, where talking animals abound and all creatures of childhood fantasy (unicorns, fauns, giants and even a cameo by... nah, find out for yourself) seem to reside. It's also a place currently cursed into permanent winter by the Jadis the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) who reigns as a malevolent dictator and seduces one of the children to her side. The others line up on the side of a Narnian citizen's rebellion which it seems they are prophecized to lead alongside Aslan, (voice of Liam Neeson,) a talking lion of godlike power.
The bulk of the story takes up journey of the children between leaving the wardrobe and the requisite giant-scale "Braveheart" open-field clash of good and evil armies, punctuated by a plot twist that establishes the story's much-touted Crucifixtion/Ressurection allegory and leads to just about the scariest extended sequence seen in a children's film since the third act of "E.T."
Amidst all this, the film has a ball making use of the opportunities afforded by Lewis' hodgepodge assembly of myth, fairytales and dream-logic: The kids are aided on their quest by a married pair of jolly Beavers who embody ideal English middle-class domesticity. Jadis' "secret police" are literally a pack of wolves... while Rupert Everett turns up in the voice of a fox spy. In the climactic battle, everything from centaurs, gryphons and satyrs to gorillas, rhinos and leopards charge the field against Jadis' legion of minotaurs, werewolves, cyclops and gargoyles. And Mr. Beaver gets a little beaver-sized suit of armor, how can you not love that?
I'll just say it: This movie is better than I could've allowed myself to hope it would be. It's a total-package: Well made, gorgeous-looking, perfectly paced (it's a lot of movie in just a hair over 2 hours) and excellently acted. The performances, really, are what put it over the top, even disregarding the "curve" of most of the cast being either voiceovers or children. Worth special mention is Swinton, who plays Jadis as a kind of dark, elemental force in human form and does so so convincingly that she may need to get used to the sight of young children crossing the street and diving behind their mothers as she walks by. And Liam Neeson is expectedly spot-on as the Christ-like Aslan... possibly a little too spot-on, as Neeson is starting to become the go-to actor for mentor roles.
But the breakout star is little Georgie Henley, all of ten years old, as youngest child Lucy. Serving as the audience p.o.v. character for much of the first act, and remaining an important counterpoint throughout, she turns in an amazing performance that becomes the foundation of the film. She has a tremendously expressive face, which the Adamson expertly uses as the emotional signal for a scene's undertone or approaching danger, while wisely allowing the character to remain convincingly a little girl for the whole of the film (as opposed to the "moppet with a grownup's wit" routine usually employed for such parts.)
Looking at the boxoffice predictions so far, it doesn't look like any of you really NEED any encouragement, but I'm going to give you some anyway: GO SEE THIS. Take the kids (if applicable). This could well end up being the best family movie of the year, along with one of the better action films as well, and you don't want to miss it.
FINAL RATING: 9/10