The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
When I heard that Hollywood was adapting C.S. Lewis’ beloved children’s fantasy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — the first of seven in the Chronicles of Narnia series — and that Disney was the studio doing the adaptation, I nearly broke into song. My face went flush, I erupted into a ridiculous sweat, and I developed a small rash around my neckline, so giddy with anticipation was I. Walt Disney and C.S. Lewis?! Oh, how great is this going to be?! It’s going to be the mother of all reviews! The possibilities for cataclysmic failure and cinematic catastrophe were endless. For a reviewer who delights in excoriating bad movies, the thought of Disney adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia was like Christmas! And not one of those shitty, yard-sale-bought, pieces-missing-from-the-train-set Christmases I grew up with; I’m talking about the shiny-red-bicycle-with-a-goddamn-bell-on-the-handlebars Christmas that the neighbor kids always got. And I couldn’t wait.
It was perfect; of course, Disney would cast kewpie whack-a-mole Dakota Fanning as Lucy, who would provide words of wisdom to the professor, undoubtedly portrayed by a dimpled Dennis Quaid. And it goes without saying that Jessica Alba would be cast as Susan and wear skimpy, ass-hugging outfits into the Narnia winter while flirting relentlessly with her brother, Peter, who would be played by Chad Michael Murray or a shirtless no-matter-how-deep-the-snow is Jared Padalecki. Who would direct? Chris Columbus, of course! Mr. and Mrs. Beaver would be tossed aside in favor of the flavor-of-the-month animal: Penguins! Voiced by Gilbert Gottfried and Renee Zellweger with an unnecessary English accent! Mr. Tumnus — the mythical faun — would be played by Mike Meyers, who would probably make noises with his armpits and provide cheeky double entendres. Oh … heaven! And because Glenn Close is too old and has lost her box-office clout, the White Witch would have her gender reversed and be played by Jim Carrey as the White Count who turns the good folks of Narnia into stone with his flatulence. Oh! Oh! And Father Christmas, naturally, would be portrayed by Tim Allen, who would drink large cans of Diet Pepsi (diet, ‘cause he’s fat!) and give all the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve video iPods with stock U2 images. And Aslan would be voiced by either Morgan Freeman, if they were going respectable, or better yet: Will Smith! The Christ Figure that calls everyone “Dawg!” And when Aslan is sacrificed, the dialogue would shift into Latin with English subtitles to provide that Passion of Christ authenticity. And … and … finally, when the White Count is defeated by the forces of good, a CGI-animated Aerosmith would come out and sing some bad Diane Warren anthems with the Coca Cola Polar Bears while Dakota Fanning shed one single, shiny tear that said, “Are you watching, Oscar voters! Cause this is my year, bitches!”
Goddamn! A movie critic can dream, can’t he?
But hell if the folks over at Disney didn’t go and ruin Christmas for me. Instead of exploitative, product-placement-laden drivel, those bastards actually managed to put together a half-decent movie, ensuring once again that all the Christmas spoils will go to Dan, who gets to review Cheaper by the Dozen II.
Directed by Andrew Adamson (Shrek), The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is perfectly cast with mostly British unknowns, none of whom tries to steal the picture, and it is faithful (almost to a fault) to C.S. Lewis’ fantasy world, give or take a few meaningless transgressions and some unnecessary battle scenes.
The narrative is simple yet graceful. To keep safe from the London Blitz during World War II, the four Pevensie children are sent to the countryside to live with the doddering professor (Jim Broadbent) in his sprawling manor. One day, while playing hide and seek, the youngest Pevensie, Lucy, stumbles upon a wardrobe, the back of which leads her, and eventually her siblings, into the medievalish land of Narnia, where — thanks to the evil powers of the White Witch — it has been winter for over 100 years, during which time Christmas hasn’t been allowed (it’s socialist propaganda!). It is, of course, up to the Pevensies to put an end to the civil war between the White Witch and her secret police (the wolves) and the good, bleeding-heart capitalists of Narnia (the beavers, foxes, fauns, unicorns, et al.), who only want to return to the days of Santa Claus, Apple commercials, and Black Friday.
The producers could not have found a better White Witch than Tilda Swinton, who has a freakish ability to scold you with her eyes in the manner of a high-school principal with a bad love life and something to prove. The over-hyped Biblical allegory, unless you are a militant atheist with some Christ-aversion issues, isn’t too over the top; and even the battle scenes are done pretty well, in a Braveheart-for-third-graders sort of way.
And, yet, like even the better Harry Potter movies, the film doesn’t manage to capture the subtle charm of its source material. It seems to me that, for adults who grew up with the Narnia series, so much of the magic inhered in the small details; in the film version, Adamson unfortunately either misses those niceties, or worse yet, overplays them — for instance, by turning what the book describes as a very ordinary wardrobe into an ornate, wooden monstrosity that no one would keep in their bedroom unless they knew it to have magical powers.
Indeed, while The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an honorable, almost too pure adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ book, the indeterminate whimsical qualities of the source material do not seem to translate very well into film. For that, however, I cannot fault Adamson; it is the elusive nature of fantasy literature, which seems to live, breathe, and soar upon a tattered page, which is perhaps where it belongs and, if anything, is where Disney should’ve kept it.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.