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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

by on 2010/12/11

About ten years ago I worked in the children’s section of a local bookshop, and took it upon myself to read the latest in kid lit.  The popular favourites, by a landslide, were the early Harry Potter books, which I promptly acquired, read, and then dismissed.  Compared to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia . . . well, there was no real comparison in my mind.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first story in the Narnia series (excepting its later-penned prequel, The Magician’s Nephew).  Adapted at least twice before — in animated and BBC mini-series forms — the third time’s the charm with this incarnation, which proves faithful, well-produced, and definitive.

Escaping the London bombings of World War Two, the four Pevensie children are sheltered by the elder Digory Kirke in his labyrinthine mansion.  There they stumble upon a portal to Narnia, an alternate reality where humans enjoy a rare, exalted status, and plants, animals, and other fantastic creatures are both sentient and common.

Half of Narnia rallies around the elusive lion Aslan (Liam Neeson).  The rest support Jadis (Tilda Swinton), an evil White Witch and self-appointed Queen .  Among other atrocities, she maintains an “always winter, never Christmas” environment, and has done so for the last hundred years.  The outcome of the coming battle between Jadis and Aslan will decide the fate of their world . . . at least until the next installment.

The actors (yes, even the children) are all very good, particularly Skandar Keynes as Edmund, the only Pevensie who evolves.   And though Neeson is intended to be the spirit of this piece, the presence of Swinton as Jadis is an inspired masterstroke.  Possibly the most terrifying actress in existence, her performance is less regal than predatory.  Oily reptilian eyes dilate with every inflicted misery, in an androgynous albino creepy enough to make you forget the crystalline goth of the novel.

But while Swinton is without peer in the cast, the effects sometimes betray her.  Daylight scenes reveal mismatches in compositing, as do raging river scenes.  Overall however the effects are above average for this kind of “children’s fantasy”, one that would have gotten short production shrift in the past.  Issues still common in big budget films do not plague Narnia here:  anthropomorphic CGI avoids the uncanny valley; actors real and virtual seem to exist in the same space; battle scenes are engaging, even visceral despite their bloodlessness.

In summary, if I am less enraptured by this work than I was with The Golden Compass, I’m very grateful nonetheless it was realized so well.  How Narnia functions subtextually, I’ll leave for others to judge but, as a fan of the original books, I’m satisfied.  With The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, children of all ages at last have a respectable companion to Rob Reiner’s Princess Bride, and an entree to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

* * * *

Rated PG for frightening scenes and violence

143 minutes

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