Review by: Keith Simanton

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Georgie Henley, William Moseley (I), Skandar Keynes, Anna Popplewell

7 out of 10 stars: Though the effects are impressive and the intent noble, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a stumble-bum of a film. It succeeds neither as a children's film (though more on that later) nor, more importantly, as an epic fantasy, on the order of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As this is the strongest property in Christian apologist C.S. Lewis's "Narnia" series, it seems that only the initial hefty box-office and the fortitude of Philip Anschutz, the silent-partner producer of this film, will ensure that any others will follow.

The movie starts out promisingly enough. We are swooping down through darkened skies. Are we on the back of a hippogriff or some dragon? No, we're in the middle the Blitz, an attack on London during the second World War, and we're escorting a squadron of German bombers. The British Pevensie family, young Lucy (Georgie Henley), difficult Edmund (Skandar Keynes), non-descript Susan (Anna Popplewell) and pseudo-princely Peter (William Moseley) run with their mother to the bomb shelter. Edmund runs back for his father's picture and Peter berates him for not listening to him and nearly getting them all killed.

Right off, this adaptation has done several smart and original things by altering Lewis's text a bit, some of it in keeping with his writings (or intent), some not. In keeping with Lewis's conversion to Christianity, solidified by the horrors of war he saw, the film has a real world component of evil (the Luftwaffe) which will be mirrored later in the magical land of Narnia. But it breaks smartly with Lewis's perception of children as easily identifiable as good or bad. Edmund is a pudgy, sweets-loving narcissist in the book; we know he's a rotten apple right off. Here he's given a more human component, a desire not to be bullied, a rebellious streak against authority (which is even more interesting theologically than just being spoiled goods from the outset).

The children are evacuated to the countryside where they are taken in by a mysterious professor, named Kirke (Jim Broadbent) and his brusque and officious housekeeper, Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne. During one particularly boring afternoon they play hide-and-seek and Lucy secrets herself in an enormous wardrobe, full of fur coats.

As she backs into the wardrobe she finds she is no longer among coats, but trees in a deep forest. There she meets a faun, Mr. Tumnus (very nicely handled by James McAvoy). Though initially frightened of each other, the two quickly become friends. Mr. Tumnus explains that Lucy is in the land of Narnia, where it is "always winter and never Christmas," and Mr. Tumnus invites her to come out of the cold and into his house for tea. Tumnus gives Lucy her cup and begins to pipe a melody. In one of the significantly beautiful moments of the film the tongues of the fire become dryads and satyrs gamboling around, until Lucy drifts off to sleep; it's both creepy and mesmerizing, mirroring the extraordinary circumstance of a young girl being in the lair of a half-man, half-goat (in the book the tune made Lucy want to "cry, laugh, dance, and sleep all at the same time"). But Lucy awakens to find a chilled and chastened Tumnus; he's tells her he had intended to kidnap her and turn her over to the White Witch but he's had a change of heart (perhaps the appearance of a lion-like figure in the flames?). Tumnus hastens Lucy back to their meeting spot, a mysterious lamp-post, where she returns to the conventional world back through the wardrobe.

Edmund follows Lucy but he has a different experience, almost being run over by the Queen of Narnia (Tilda Swinton, strong and great), who is, in actuality, the White Witch that keeps the land blanketed with snow. She learns of Lucy's visit and gives Edmund Turkish delight and exacts a promise from him, to bring his brothers and sisters back into Narnia and to her castle, just beyond the two hills.

The Witch is trying to circumvent the realization of the prophecy that when four humans arrive in Narnia, Aslan -- a magnificent lion who is the true ruler of Narnia -- will return.

Peter and Susan arrive with Edmund and Lucy to discover that Mr. Tumnus's house has been destroyed and that there's a posted notice declaring that Tumnus has been taken by the secret police as an enemy of Narnia. The four children then come upon a talking beaver, who, with his good wife, Mrs. Beaver, get them out of the inclement weather and provide more exposition. It's the Beavers that tell them about Aslan and the prophecy. The name "Aslan" (voiced by Liam Neeson when he finally appears) has a beneficent influence on the children (save Edmund, who is horrified); their faces light up when they first hear the lion's name, the light in the room changes to a warm amber. Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2), tries to convey Lewis's passage as well as he can wherein,"Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer." It's a small touch but there are several such moments and, in something as large and unwieldy as this film, the little thing warrant notice and appreciation.

What follows, however, is an inordinately weak section of the film. Edmund heads to the White Witch's castle for more Turkish delight (and gets clapped in irons for his trouble) while Adamson attempts to build suspense, bringing in the White Witch's secret police, a pack of wolves, as his Ringwraiths. Here an inclusion directly from the book and an episode made up entirely outside of the book, both fail in their efforts.

Santa Claus shows up. Now, I distinctly recall the joy I experienced reading the book and worrying about how these kids were going to get warm and something to eat and away from the wolves, and Santa Claus showed up. Santa had a warm connotation. He meant that things would be alright. As the time approached in the movie when I knew that Father Christmas was around the corner I began to squirm. Were they going to do it? Would he be in a red suit?

When Father Christmas does indeed arrive he is, thankfully, more of a traditional Saint Nicholas character than someone dreamed up by Thomas Nast, who hoists a bottle of Coke each winter. I understand why his inclusion is in keeping with the theological backbone of the analogy; you can't have Easter without Christmas, and Father Christmas, as in the book, also gives the children battle implements, a sword for Peter, a bow and arrow (and horn) for Susan, a vial of healing potion and dagger for Lucy. But, he is no different than Tom Bombadil, for me. Bombadil, the omniscient woodland being, was rightly excised out of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and I believe Father Christmas should have met the same fate; it's an obvious edit point of an otherwise painful sequence.

A confrontation at a frozen waterfall (fabricated from the book as far as I can recall) lacks in all the elements that one thinks it was imported for, such as providing some needed suspense and action. Peter, Susan, and Lucy face off against Maugrim, the head of the secret police and the wolf taunts Peter and his new sword, daring Peter to prove himself. The effects used in their escape are sub-par and the film begins to drag.

The third act, however, is a marked improvement, including the famous Stone Table sequence and a protracted battle set piece.

What's also notable is how small this Narnia seems, for all the New Zealand vistas. The "Hi-Ho" shot, a helicopter shot where the three Pevensie's cross a natural arc, doesn't as much give a grander scope to the land of Narnia as to remind you of the seven dwarves crossing the bridge, singing their daily commute song from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. "Outside now!" the film seems to say, "Come visit New Zealand!"

But it's not only the landscape, it's the very nature of the story, that keeps it forever a children's tale. In Lord of the Rings the ultimate evil is a deposed overlord in a distant land who can't even take corporeal form, save for an ever-seeing eye. Those who are against him face his minions in ever increasing number and the abstract notion of a future domination. In "Narnia" Edmund steps through the wardrobe and BAM! he's almost run over by the witch's sleigh. This is not to fault Lewis; he meant his book, principally, for children. He meant to keep his villain immediate and present, not some vague concept with political and military implications. Sin and evil is real and BAM! it can almost knock you over if you aren't paying attention. But in a film that is attempting to be epic it comes across as a painfully authorial coincidence.

And, there's no escaping the dread one feels knowing that these children are going to lead a battle (as they're constantly reminded). It doesn't present itself here as an opportunity to raise the stakes but as a dreadfully odd and capricious thing to do.

And something must be said about the children, or perhaps, Adamson's direction of the children. We've been spoiled by Francois Truffaut and Steven Spielberg, both masters of eking out great performances from children, which has to be one of the most difficult things a director can attempt to do. Adamson has been manipulating pixels for most of his career, which is why the CGI effects, including Aslan, are much better than the children's performances. The children veer from outright painful to marginally believable and they're a liability in this film, particularly during the aforementioned weak middle section. Poor William Moseley, as Peter, is just bad.

Tilda Swinton, however, is largely terrific. Her White Witch is less the cajoler than Barbara Kellerman's version, who gave her a lilting voice in the BBC production. Swinton's Witch entices only as much as she thinks is necessary until she's sunk her hooks in, which is pretty quickly with Edmund. And she's a fearsome presence on the battlefield.

***BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!*** But where Swinton truly revels is in the Stone Table sequence, which remains a masterful piece of writing. In it Aslan sacrifices himself in exchange for the blood debt owed by the traitor Edmund while Lucy and Susan, hidden away, look on. Aslan presents himself in front of the White Witch's army, a composite of monstrosities, and is humiliated, beaten, and shorn by them. He is then killed by the White Witch. It is powerful, tragic, and triumphant, even if one doesn't subscribe to the religion behind it (full disclosure: I do).

Largely unchanged (and the most overt Christian allegorical component in the story) it breathes life back into this film as surely as the resurrected Aslan breathes life into those turned to stone by the White Witch.

The battle sequences also energize the film, adding a dimension of serious consequence not present beforehand. And it's also here that one wonders just what Wardrobe intended to be. The war is not for children and it revels in the spectacle of violence; it does it quite well, actually. Because of the soggy middle section it's hard to accept these children in their new roles, though the inclination is there. And yet, I wonder if it's precisely my prejudices that are preventing me from embracing this film, and its eventual place in the pantheon of fantasy films, the way that the inclusion of musical numbers prevented many from accepting The Wizard of Oz, breaking so greatly from the work they knew by L. Frank Baum. Perhaps years from now this is how future adults will know Narnia, the books as much as shadow of the movie as Baum's are now. I just wish those future adults had a better movie to work with.