Now that J.R.R. Tolkien’s reign as box-office king among dead Oxford fantasy authors has run its course, old colleague C. S. Lewis is being nominated as his successor with “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Not nearly as imposing as “The Lord of the Rings” as mythology, drama or literature, Lewis’ series of seven modest-length books has nevertheless been popular since “Lion” first appeared in 1950. Just coincidentally, it also provides the opportunity for the sorts of extravagant computerized effects that create tentpole movie attractions these days. While “Rings”-level B.O. totals won’t be matched, there’s little doubt Disney’s massive marketing push in the service of a competently made film that appeals to all demographics will be banking money from this one for the indefinite future.
Unlike the much more demanding and young-adult-oriented “Rings” cycle, Lewis’ tomes are geared toward children. To many adults, they can seem simplistic, somewhat derivative and downright odd if analyzed as Christian fable or metaphor. “Lion” functions best as a “Wizard of Oz”-like trip, an expression of innocent, parent-deprived children’s imaginative escape from dreary reality into an exquisite but perilous world of starkly personified good and evil dominated by animals, human-like characters and a witch. Like “Oz,” it similarly ends with the leads’ confounding decision to return to that dull reality rather than to stay in a wondrous land where they are regarded as heroes and royalty.
Like Peter Jackson’s “Rings” trilogy, “The Lion” is presented — by famously family-friendly producer Mark Johnson along with Philip Steuer — on a gargantuan scale, and to a great extent on New Zealand locations. What it lacks in complexity, distinguished Anglo-Aussie-Yank thespians and transcendent screen magic it somewhat compensates for by way of the strong casting of mostly unfamiliar faces, a convincing family feeling among the four kids, solid storytelling and fluid interplay between the humans and four-legged creatures; as in “Shrek,” director Andrew Adamson displays an equal opportunity attitude toward all critters, human or otherwise.
Escaping one war zone merely to find another, siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund and little Lucy are spirited out of London during the blitz by their mother to the calm of a distant country estate inhabited by the Professor (Jim Broadbent). During a game of hide-and-seek, Lucy (Georgie Henley) ducks into a large wardrobe, only to find herself transported into a wintery forest where she meets a faun, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a half-man, half-goat who expresses wonder at the arrival of a girl he calls the “daughter of Eve” and invites her to his cozy abode.
Big-eyed, snub-nosed and pleasantly plump, Henley conveys a contagious curiosity that makes her an ideal conduit for the wonderment one is meant to feel in this new world. It falls to the faun to explain that Narnia is ruled by a terrible queen, the White Witch, who keeps the land in eternal winter and has prevented Christmas from coming for 100 years. Although the queen has decreed that any human found in Narnia must be delivered straight to her, Mr. Tumnus lets her go.
On Lucy’s second trip through the wardrobe, she is followed by doubting brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes, very good at skepticism and incipient mischief), who is promptly found by the queen (the ideally cast Tilda Swinton) and seduced into believing he will be made a prince and, eventually, the king of Narnia if he brings his siblings back with him.
Pic’s central adventure starts at the 40-minute mark, as Lucy and Edmund are joined by older Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) to wander around the forest until being taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Cockney-accented computer animated critters who regale them with news of the imminent arrival of the great leonine savior Aslan. And a savior they will need, as disgruntled Edmund has slipped away to see the queen, only to be thrown into a frigid cell along with the faun.
Informed of the interlopers’ arrival, the witch dispatches her flying monkeys … errr, marauding wolves … to intercept them. The film’s most brilliantly animated creatures, the wolves feature in two or three scary scenes that, along with some violent battle moments, push the film to, and perhaps beyond, the invisible line between PG and PG-13 territory; simply put, unprepared smallfry may get more than they can handle.
With the entrance of the Lion King … errr, Aslan … the enterprise is endowed with a gravitas that lends the drama moral purpose and inspires the hitherto peaceable and arguably wimpy English kids to advanced levels militaristic determinism. As voiced with ringingly noble Irish-Anglo clarity by Liam Neeson, Aslan is prone — as a well-known wizard once said — to think deep thoughts.
His uncanny ability to say and do the right thing extends to realms that mortal men and beasts can’t comprehend when he makes a private deal with the queen that entails sacrificing himself for the greater good.
This scene, staged as an act of ancient ritual that Mel Gibson would appreciate, is another that the impressionable may find tough to watch, as it is for Susan and Lucy, who have accompanied Aslan on his fateful journey. The lion’s eventual resurrection is crucial to the Christian overlay in Lewis’ work, and while this element may help “Lion” lure Gibson’s passionate audience to untold upward B.O. effect, the film does not stress its religious parallels.
Pic’s credibility hinges as much on the visualization of the lion as on anything else. Compared with the wolves, the imposing Aslan looks somewhat less lifelike at first; his expressions seem a bit posed and the waviness of his mane and other hair isn’t entirely naturalistic. But one soon accepts him, as his movements carry a deliberate composure and Neeson’s sonorous readings convey a steady dignity.
Climactic battle, the scale of which has rather more to do with “The Lord of the Rings” than with anything in Lewis’ text, is marked not only by its spectacle but by its unique constituency; both sides are populated not only by recognizable members of the animal kingdom but by creatures of unfathomable origin, combination man-beasts divided by the beautiful (on Aslan’s side) and the repugnant (the queen’s minions).
Good triumphs, of course, and an end-credits insert leaves the wardrobe door wide open for a sequel, as Lucy asks the Professor, “Will we ever go back?” to which he replies, “I expect so.”
Although there are a few obvious process shots and telltale painted backdrops, the film’s design elements and special and visual effects are mostly impressive; seemingly the only thing the tech maestros couldn’t pull off is making the characters’ breath visible in the mostly winter settings.
Combined efforts of production designer Roger Ford, costume designer Isis Mussenden, visual effects supervisor Dean Wright, creature and visual concept designer Richard Taylor, special makeup and creatures creators Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero and an array of supporting craftspeople pull the viewer into a credible alternative world, even if the film itself is more prosaic than inspiring.
The kids work well together, although the more upright personalities of the older siblings prevent Moseley and Popplewell from being as entertaining as are Henley and Keynes. As white as a vampire, Swinton leavens her icy queen with nary a whit of vulnerability, while McAvoy invests the faun with welcome nuances of character. James Cosmo brings a robust humanity to his cameo as Father Christmas, whose arrival in Narnia portends the end of the queen’s rule.
Harry Gregson-Williams’ score brings helpful vigor to the enterprise, which, in addition to New Zealand, was partially shot in Poland, the Czech Republic, England and Guatemala.