Following the massive success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, fellow New Zealander Andrew Adamson has undertaken the equally ambitious task of adapting the beloved Chronicles of Narnia—the other great literary fantasy work of the era—to the screen. Unlike Jackson, though, Adamson is an unpolished director (as I write, he turns 40 today), having only directed Shrek and Shrek 2: the former was a clever, enjoyable satire, but that franchise doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that Narnia, a magical adventure full of mythical creatures, magnificent encounters, and the rarest kind of enchantment, was in the best of hands. Regrettably, the doubts turn out to be justified. Though The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has several terrific elements, it never feels truly transporting. For a journey into a mystical land, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is oddly awkward and stale: while the CGI is magnificent (particularly that of Aslan and the Beavers), entire shots are pilfered directly from Lord of the Rings—the minotaur’s battle cry during the war, for instance, is identical to the Orc Captain’s bellow during Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. Of course, it’s human nature to compare Narnia to The Lord of the Rings, and I’m not referring to the plot—I know the two were written around the same time, and that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were close friends, and that the thematic similarities go way back. No, I’m referring directly to Adamson’s choice of visual techniques. They regularly feel like more immature versions of Jackson’s—long shots of landscapes and swirling pans in the heat of battle without the intensity and cinematic energy. While there are certainly worse filmmakers to emulate for this genre, Narnia lacks its own directorial identity, much like the first two Harry Potter pictures. The children appear confused, repeatedly stumbling unconvincingly over their words (more on this later), and only a handful of sequences stand out as examples of powerful fantasy storytelling: Aslan’s reincarnation, for instance, or most scenes involving the White Witch. And even these are frequently tempered by soppy verbal exchanges a few seconds later.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe begins in 1942 battle-torn London, with the wintry war in Narnia serving as an allegory for WWII. The Pevensie children—Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley)—hate the war for ripping their family apart, and use their personal heartbreak as motivation to aid Aslan in his quest to reclaim Narnia from the Witch in their parallel universe. It’s a beautiful premise, and the film gets off to a promising start before screeching to a halt. Beyond Adamson’s direction, Narnia’s deepest problems lie in its script. The dialogue ranges from mediocre to downright bad, and unlike The Lord of the Rings, there’s no Ian McKellan or Viggo Mortensen around to bail the screenwriters out (the screenplay is 1000 times better in Jackson’s films anyway, suffering from only an occasional clunker here and there). Instead, Adamson turns to four kids and asks them to save the day. Alas, they’re not up to the task. Both boys lack range, particularly Keynes, and their performances come across as astonishingly one-note. Popplewell is adequate, but her role requires little: she simply has to make wise comments, and play the cautious cookie. Henley is the one member of the quartet who really shines. Her smile is beyond precious, and she strikes just the right note of optimism and fear that make Lucy such an appealing character. As a result, only her delivery of lines is particularly convincing—the others are passable at their best moments, unbearable at their worst (this includes the battles; it’s difficult to make a 12 year-old swinging a sword believable). The supporting roles fare quite a bit better. Liam Neeson voices Aslan with dignity and grace, and the Beavers are a riot. But the real star of Narnia is Tilda Swinton, who’s simply mesmerizing as the White Witch. Her calm enunciation, pale skin, and cold eyes make her the perfect Snow Queen, and the entire movie picks up whenever she’s onscreen.
There’s no question that Adamson faced a serious challenge with Narnia: with children as the leads, there wasn’t much margin for error, and the target demographic was extremely varied—more Harry Potter than Lord of the Rings. Still, it feels to me like he’s wound up somewhere in the middle. The writing and execution are too childish to fully be embraced by adults and youths, yet the 140 minute length, choppy pacing, and historical backdrop (as minimal as it may be) will test the kiddies’ patience. It may sound like I’m completely panning The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and while it’s definitely middling filmmaking, it’s not without merit. The silky, naturalistic CGI and astounding sets and makeup deserve Oscars, and much of the movie is at least moderately entertaining. Still, I expected more from such a highly anticipated adaptation of a classic masterpiece, especially one so up my alley. Perhaps diehard aficionados of C.S. Lewis’ novels will find more to admire here than I did, but it’s difficult to envision this being hailed as a great cinematic work in any circles. Here’s hoping that Adamson’s reign as King of Narnia will be short-lived, because there’s some serious potential here for a long-lasting, memorable franchise.