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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma, Laura Eldred, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   Andrew Adamson (director)
Genre:   Beloved children’s fantasy
Released:   December 9, 2005
Review Date:   December 14, 2005
Audience Rating:   PG
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

Wherein we see two reviewers battle it out over a recent film involving a depiction of book one of C.S. Lewis' beloved series The Chronicles of Narnia. This book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describes the adventures of four children — Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy — who find themselves in a magical world that only they can save from eternal misery. Now let the battle begin. In this corner: the angry, the irascible, the ironic tonic Andrew "The Naysayer" Kozma! And in this corner (that being the other corner): the joyous garde, soon-to-be Doctor Laura "Positivist" Eldred! Please place your bets now, using the credit-card shaped slot on the front of your computer.

Andrew: This movie is definitely Disney. For starters, if there's one thing the Mouse knows how to do, that's make a profit, and Narnia will. Half Harry Potter and half The Lord of the Rings and bake for two and a half hours and VOILA! Bon apetit!

And, of course, once you have the cake, you need the icing: Industrial Light & Magic to the rescue. The effects are simply amazing (okay, in the interest of full disclosure, they're sometimes just simple. For example, there are giants in the evil army. They are definitely not given enough time in the battle scene, and one reason is perhaps that they seem badly photoshopped in, the edge around them the blurred remnants of a blue screen). But as Laura will tell you —

Laura: Aslan is gorgeous.

Andrew: But gorgeous is as gorgeous does, and all the beauty in Narnia doesn't actually do that much. Or maybe it does too much. Want an explanation for that paradox?

Laura: Andy's being snarky. Don't listen to him. The film's great. I'm the one with the Ph.D. dammit! Don't make me smack you with it!

Andrew: Uh-huh, uh-huh, okay. Here it goes. Really what I'm talking about is the difference between an adaptation of a book and a film made of it. Narnia seems too much a condensation, an alchemical distilling of all the important scenes from the book without the connecting tissue. I had a lot of problems with the adaptation of Tolkien's books into The Lord of the Rings movies but, whatever else, they were effective as movies.

With Narnia it feels as if whole scenes have been cut that would have offered insight into the characters and the movement of the story. What happens between Peter and the "lead" centaur. (Who I'm sure has a name but exists for all intents and purposes without one in the film. He is a cipher that we are supposed to read as loyalty, honor, and strength rather than as any sort of real person.)

Similarly, what happens in the Professor's house? For all the film seems to say, the children find Narnia only a few days (a day?) after their arrival in the house. This sense of timelessness is also apparent in the opening scenes where London is bombed and the kids are sent off: there is no sense of place or growth. Those scenes are simply and only markers that say, "Hey, look, a war! Better get those kids out of town. Oh, look, there they go."

Laura: I have to interject here. If you have those issues with the film, then you've better take Lewis out into the hall, cuz they're all in the book. The book has no freaking "connecting tissue." There are no moments of deep insight into the characters that, due to evil machinations on the parts of the writers, were not included in the film.

We should, for a minute, discuss the book. I have very fond memories of reading this series when I was a kid, so I was surprised when I picked it back up a couple weeks ago to discover that it is, really, a very young children's book. The sentences are direct, short, and simple. The characters are totally uni-dimensional. There is absolutely no character development in the book. All that's not to say that the book isn't brilliant: it's a clear, clean, lovely fable. But you can't then take issue with the film for leaving aspects of the book out, because it doesn't.

That "lead" centaur isn't even in the book. The book doesn't say what happens in the professor's house (though later books go into this). The book doesn't explain the war more than the following: "This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids." End of story. It's a very simple fairy tale.

Andrew: Okay, okay, but, if for no other reason, this lack of a sense of time becomes a problem at the end when [SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! But come on, if you haven't read The Chronicles of Narnia, there's a problem. Get to it! And drop and give me twenty!] the film ages the children ten or fifteen years in the last five minutes and then expects us to care about their shock when returned to their youth upon leaving Narnia.

Laura: Well, that's in the book. Exactly in the book. Except in the book, they suddenly start talking like this when they're older (and this is, unfortunately, a direct quote from the book): "And I have such desire to find the signification of this thing that I would not by my good will turn back for the richest jewel in all Narnia and all the islands." I rather think that the film improved on this. Snooty pseudo-medieval lords and lassies speech is annoying.

Andrew: You say that about the characters being more developed, but I don't see it. The children are, and should be, the main characters, but they aren't given any individuation in the film. Peter is the Responsible One, Susan the Cautious and Motherly One, Edmund the Spoiled One, and Lucy, the youngest, is the Innocent and Trusting One (surprise!). And it's not that these characteristics aren't true to the books, or that they can't be true to the characters, but that the film sacrifices character to spectacle. In fact, pretty much everything is sacrificed to spectacle.

Laura: If that's true, then the book sacrifices character development too (on a Stone Table! According to the deep magic! But the book doesn't truly understand the deep magic, or it'd know that Character Development will rise greater and stronger than before!). As I've said, there's no character development in the books, and there were places that the film does develop characters more successfully. In Lewis's narrative, the naughty Edmund is given no motivation for being such a snot, and ends up coming off as quite unlikable. The film allowed me to like Edmund again by giving Edmund a personality and reasons for being a snot: He misses his dad, who's away at war, and resents his older brother's attempts to play at being boss. That's an understandable thing. I ended up finding Edmund the most interesting and human of the four kids. You thought Edmund was an annoying sinner twit?

Andrew: No, I'm not saying that. You're right, he was the most interesting, and had the most acting to do out of all the children. In fact, the acting is fine, especially the voice-acting of the animals, with Liam Neeson as Aslan and Rupert Everett as the Fox. And the story is fine (though there were three sets of writers on the script, which never reads to me as a good sign).

And the music is . . . not fine. Another symptom of Disney? The music telegraphed everything, which the directing already did, so there was a traffic jam of clues all telling the audience to look one way. But everything else was fine.

Laura: The music was highly weird. New agey shlock, which didn't jibe with the pseudo-medievalness for me. Then the end credits opened with an Alanis Morissette song. The music director should be sacrificed on the stone table. Except he'd then only rise stronger and more demented than before. . . . Let's kill him by throwing records at his head.

Andrew: There is just so much that could have been done to make this movie not just another fantasy movie. Where is the focus, only hinted at, on the beauty of childhood imagination and the inevitable loss that comes from growing up? The Professor hints at this, but the film never lingers on what it means to be a child (or what it means to take on adult responsibility, as Peter supposedly does near the end). Where is the constant wonder at the world? Where are the consequences from choices that children recognize to start them on the path to maturity?

Laura: Ummm. Edmund much?

Andrew: Yes, all the time, but that's beside the point. Where's the blood? The death? The guilt? Again, Edmund almost hints at that, but there is no time given to that evolution. The deaths from the climactic battle, the cost of the battle itself, is erased through Aslan's breath and Lucy's all-healing potion.

Laura: Well, there you seem to be taking issue with Lewis's religion. Of course, this is an allegorical story: Lewis said it was meant to be a kind of fantastic exploration of how the Passion would play out in another world. Sin dooms us all to death; once Edmund betrays his family, the White Witch (i.e., death) owns him.

Though there could be worse deaths. The Witch is hot, with her dreadlocky hair and her intense eyes. She can feed me Turkish delight any day.

Back to the plot (AGAIN, SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK): Aslan (i.e., Jesus/ God) must sacrifice himself (giving death what it is owed) in order to save Edmund (i.e., sinning humans). And once you repent (and accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior! Hallelujah!), you are cleansed: The cost of battle is wiped out, all is healed, you are new. That's the theology we're dealing with.

Lewis was an academic, a student of Greek, Latin, philosophy, and especially medieval and Renaissance literature, and he was actually converted by J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson in 1931. He left the Protestant church in Northern Ireland to become a high-church Anglican.

This is probably an appropriate place to note the religious brouhaha surrounding this film. It was funded by a Mr. Philip Anschutz, a billionaire who wants to bring more moral, Christian films to Hollywood. For those who're curious, his previous efforts included Around the World in 80 Days (how does that work? Is Jackie Chan a Christ figure?), and a small film about Ray Charles. Five percent of the film's marketing budget is going to church outreach.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. When I first read the books, I didn't think about the allegory. It was a good story; it had talking animals! It is possible to enjoy the story without having the religion shoved down your throat. Lewis hoped that the Narnia stories would provide a certain mythological framework into which, perhaps, stories about Christianity would fit; I don't think he meant his book (or the film of it) to be used as a purely instructional tool in Sunday school classrooms.

Andrew: I think the allegory is a bit heavy-handed in the movie. Aslan's actions pretty much spell out Christ in big fireworks letters in the sky without having to have the morning sun haloing him or music that crescendos at his every word.

Overall, I think you're right, both about the religious aspect and the book itself. It's been a long time since I read Lewis' books. And, really, the movie could be a faithful representation with even more characterization and plot than Lewis allowed the book to have. That still doesn't make it a great movie. Instead, it makes it a faithful adaptation of the book which, as it turns out, might have been better served by not adhering so faithfully.

Laura: I don't want to suggest that this film is better than Bruce Campbell dancing in leather pants. It has some off moments. The music, for one. Also, the costumes once the kids start prepping for battle look like castoffs from a high school performance of Camelot. Liam Neesen's voice as Aslan was a little distracting; he did a good job, but I kept thinking, "Hey! That's Liam Neesen!"

And, though this isn't exactly a gripe, someone in the creature design department has been playing World of Warcraft: This film has Tauren, griffons, and druid-esque leopards. But really these are minor points, to me. It's a faithful adaptation of a simple, beautiful story. The CGI looks great. The acting is perfectly sufficient. I enjoyed it very much. I think if you like the books, you'll like the film. And I have a newly minted Ph.D. to back that up, so don't listen to Andy.

Andrew: Even without a Ph.D., still, I can't say 'don't go see this film.' (Well, I could, but then my advice would just rise up stronger and more positive than before!) I wouldn't want to. I love these books, and even if the first movie is sub-par, well, so was the first Harry Potter. The movie is definitely worth seeing, and not just because it promises the strangeness of a continuing series of movies that are out of order and all focus on different characters. By which I mean this: Spend money on the movie, go read the books, wait for the next movie, rinse, repeat, for the next seven years, or until Disney goes out of business. Whichever comes first.

Laura's Rating: 8 out of 10

Andrew's Rating: 6 out of 10

RevSF Assistant Film Editor Andrew Kozma and RevSF contributor Laura Eldred once discovered a new world in a closet when -- Wait a sec! Is this a family Web site?

 
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