Friday, May 16, 2008

The Lion, the Witch and the White Kids

A little later today, I'll be attending the new Chronicles of Narnia film as part of the Pop Culture America Weekly Summer Tentpole Report. So far the summer is 1 and 1, with a solid Iron Man and a wobbly Speed Racer. My review of the new film will be posted shortly, but in the meantime, I thought it would be an opportune time to revisit 2005's ...

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (d. Andrew Adamson)

On paper, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series is the Christian antidote to what he saw as J. R. R. Tolkien's paganism in the Lord of the Rings. On the big screen, Narnia plays less like Rings and more like a lesser installment in the Harry Potter series, complete with a cast of British moppets and a train ride to the portal of a (somewhat) magical land. Ironic considering what some Christians think of Potter.

At the height of the World War II blitz, with Hitler's Luftwaffe pounding London, the four Pevensie children are sent out to (relative) safety in the countryside. There they rattle around in the vast manor home of Professor Kirke (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent) until during a boredom-inspired game of hide-and-seek, the youngest, Lucy, discovers that if you shove past the coats in the old wardrobe, pretty soon you discover the snow-covered pine trees and friendly fauns of Narnia.

Soon her siblings follow her and they all find themselves caught up in a conflict between an icy witch (the otherworldly Tilda Swinton) and a noble lion voiced by Liam Neeson. According to a convenient prophecy, it seems the Pevensies are destined to play key roles in Narnia's future.

Has there ever been a prophecy in a fantasy film that didn't come true? Our world should have such skillful prophets.

Each of the four children is given an unpleasant type of behavior in lieu of actual characterization: eldest Peter is bossy and bland, sister Susan is a scold, brother Edmund is greedy and weak, and the aforementioned Lucy is almost sweet, but not quite. Unlike the kids in Harry Potter who came out of the gate as engaging performers (if not initially as very good actors), the Narnia youngsters are a nondescript lot. I'm not expecting the Royal Shakespeare Company or anything here, but a little personality would not go amiss.

The kids' dullness stands in stark relief when they are asked to hold the screen opposite some of the sparkling supporting cast. As the dotty professor, Jim Broadbent twinkles easily in his all-too-brief scenes. James McAvoy as the timid faun Mr. Tumnus is skittish and complex and, like Broadbent, is shuttled off to the sidelines for far too long. And then there's Tilda Swinton.

As the White Witch Jadis, Swinton is the only member of the cast who actually seems to have entered the movie from another dimension. Alien and sudden in her movement and speech, she commands the screen at all times, even when the frame is filled to busting with CGI minotaurs, giants and cyclopes. Next to her, the kids don't stand a chance.

Director Andrew Adamson, who previously worked on the (slightly) less cartoony Shrek films, handles the action here well. A massive battle sequence toward the end of the film generates real excitement and spectacle.

But the Pevensie kids inhabit the center of this film and that's a shame because not a one of them is up to it. With them at the center, the center cannot hold.

So we're left with some impressive animated combat and the amazing Tilda Swinton, the film's best special effect. It's enough to make you wish someone else had found that wardrobe.

2 stars.

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