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The Chronicles of
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Narnia fans have been coming out of the woodwork. It's not that The Chronicles of Narnia necessarily came before the Lord of the Rings, it's that most people probably read C.S. Lewis' fantasy at a younger age (the first time) than they did Tolkien. As for Rowling, yes, Harry Potter has captured a generation's imagination, but Lewis has at least a couple of generations on her.

So the latest Hollywood attempt to find a fantasy franchise brings with it a huge built-in audience that suffered through both animation and the BBC, both inadequate to bringing the classic to life. Now Disney presents The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; if not quite as it was meant to be seen, at least it absolutely deserves to be seen.

Borrowed from Shrek, director Andrew Adamson transitions pretty smoothly to live action. He has assembled a talented and more importantly believable cast of young actors to portray the Pevensies, prophesied Kings and Queens of Narnia. And a director that could make us love an ogre is exactly what this story needs, for Narnia has its share of grotesques that have to be treated as perfectly normal, not the least of which turns out to be the petulant Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes).

Adamson also has the guts to strike a pace that Lewis would have liked. Though the movie opens with a bang as bombs drop on World War II London, the story ambles along for the first third. When the youngest child Lucy (Georgie Henley) stumbles into the titular wardrobe and into Narnia, the movie takes on no more urgency than a little girl would have herself.

She meets the faun Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) and has tea with him. From his furtive glances, it's obvious to us that something big is going on, but as Lucy isn't capable of picking up on it, the danger never really makes itself real to the audience. Instead, most of the energy comes from the dynamics of siblings trying to make do without a real mother and father.

Once the whole family enters the magical land, however, the movie turns almost giddy. Hurtling headlong toward a war of liberation against Jadis the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), the Pevensies barely have time to be astonished. Director Adamson, however, gives us the chance to be astonished by delineating a land that may not be particularly large but is full of what the White Witch calls the "deep magic."

Much of the film's charm comes from Adamson's willingness to make that magic casual. Unlike the recent Harry Potter installment, Lion, Witch, Big Piece of Furniture remembers that its characters don't just use magic when it suits them; they are magic. So magnificently common does the trick become, the film can actually step back. Even though a rhinoceros soldier barely makes an appearance and doesn't speak, we can somehow fill in the blank and make him more alive in our minds.

The focus of the CG, of course, goes toward Aslan (Liam Neeson), the mythical lion protecting Narnia. Yet another amazing leap forward in technology, Aslan appears to live and breathe and be affected by the elements. Combined with Neeson's lilting baritone, he becomes every bit the noble creature described by Lewis.

So good is the CG, however, that it does make the more down-to-earth effects look a little jarring. In Jadis' army, Cyclopes and minotaurs look exactly like what they are: stuntmen in elaborate costumes and vision-obscuring headpieces. Yet the clash between "real" and animated fighters still comes across effectively without any obvious switches.

Some of the production design leaves a bit to be desired. Narnia in winter looks suspiciously like the soundstage it was, all the better to be able to pack up the sets and put them on display at DisneyWorld MGM Studios. Even Jadis' dungeon looks more like a tableaux than a functional prison.

But they're minor quibbles in a movie that still finds its heart in four children. Bearing a suspicious resemblance to Prince William, newcomer William Mosely has the awkwardly valiant eldest brother role down pat. His transition from scared schoolboy to King works very smoothly. Lewis' story gives Susan (Anna Popplewell) little to do but stand around doubting before suddenly accepting her role, and Popplewell does it well enough.

The real finds here are Keynes and Henley as the youngest children. Adamson directs Keynes through a difficult role as he shifts from unlikable whiner to hero. In Henley's hands, Lucy never gets reduced to just being cute. Henley has an unforced honesty that never veers into cloying.

And oh, that evil Tilda Swinton, hawkishly beautiful but able to turn on a terrible fire within at the drop of a hat.

Though the movie does have a straight-up PG rating, the climactic battle scene does have some fierce moments, so don't go in thinking this is a cute little kiddie film. It is, however, earnest and pure, in the end celebrating some of those fabled values people keep talking about.

At its heart, this film is unabashedly about good versus evil. By good, we also mean quality. And The Chronicles of Narnia is definitely good.


Derek McCaw

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