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.

So anyway...

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

2 comments:

BeccaDink said...

Your writing ability is amazing, and perfectly describes everything that I could ever want to say about this movie. I think you hit this critique head on. The only off thing I found in the movie was the sometimes cheesy acting on the part of the older brother, and the attitude of Susan.

Thank you for putting into words something I never could have.

tyra said...

admitidly, i missed the first few minutes, but what i found so slip-shod, wouldn't be made better by seeing it. so, here goes: i thot the writing sucked. i thot most of the acting sucked. the only thing that saves the movie from being on mystery science theatre 3000 (other than it being cancelled), were the effects.
i came into the movie to see 4 children and two beavers hiding from a pack of wolves, up a tree. up a goddamn tree. wolves depend on thier sence of smell for survival. how in the name of fuck did an entire pack of wolves not smell a group of kids and beavers (especially beavers) sitting no more than 15 feet away? what? are they from the planet "cricket" where they simply don't think to look up? (see douglas adams' third hitch hiker book, for that referance)
then we're asked to believe that all these kids would cross over a patch of ice that was cracking under the weight of a single beaver. that's like wearing flip flops in the snow and wondering why you got frost bite.
then we have the lion go and be jesus. and the little girls sit and sob over a corpse all night, when they *knnoooww* that an epic battle is imanent. do they rush off to fight in this battle? no. they warn the brothers and sob over a corpse so they can be an udderly transparent plot device to jesus, i mean the lion, resurecting.
if you really want to do a story about jesus, then do one. and an actual story, not just a glorified snuff piece.
put values and morals and messages in you stories, yes, but don't give me thinly vailed subtext of a historical/mythical/religious figure.
i'm a little biased, because i'm not religious. being so, i don't care about jesus: point blank. that's not to say i'm not moral, tho.
i'm all about having a code of ethics (which i think the so-called moral majority is severly lacking in). but i don't need jesus, for that. so, if you want to give me a greater subtext, do it with moral of a story, not representation of a figure who taught morals. it's like having ghandi show up with no context. why should i care about ghandi? ohh.. non violent protest. ok. good idea.
but, overall, the only thing i got out of narnia, was seeing all the mythical creatures come to life, on the silver screen.
oh yeah, and someone who read the book, had to explain that ending to me... which still doesn't really make any kind of sence.