You know what this film lacks? Awe. Wonder. Grandeur. The sense that the characters are amazed or even amused by the fact that they have entered a fantasy world. Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe based on the famous novel by C.S. Lewis is like reading a Cliff’s Notes versions of a great book. The events, characters and storyline are all there, but it lacks heart, drama, passion and emotional interest.
Almost immediately the film goes wrong as there is a visually stunning sequence of a city being attacked during World War II and four children narrowly escaping with their lives as the city crumbles around them. We learn in very vague terms that these four children are being sent away to live under the care of an author who lives in the country, where they will be protected from the dangers of the War. The details here are incredibly sketchy, because this film has absolutely no interest in its first act. It wants to get into Narnia as rapidly as possible without having to stop for character development or rising action. Sure enough, by the time the children have entered Narnia I barely even remembered what their names were. And very, very little is given to the storyline about the author. Who is he? How do the children know him?
It’s all pretty much glossed over. Suddenly the youngest of the four children Lucy ends up crawling into a wardrobe during a game of hide and seek and ends up in the world of Narnia. She returns from the wardrobe to share her experience, the other kids don’t believe her, etc. etc., soon enough they are all in Narnia. At this point the vague character development begins to take place. The oldest boy Peter is the leader, the mature one, but he’s also struggling with growing up and trying to fill in for his father who went off to fight in the War.
Susan is the skeptic; questioning every action that everyone takes and trying to second guess everything. Edmund is there to be bossed around and take abuse from his older brother (trying to serve as the father figure). Lucy is a gleeful, cheery-eyed young girl with a wonderful smile and a good heart. Of all these, Lucy is the only character the film gets right. The young actress Georgie Henley gives a marvelous performance which emphasizes the curiosity and marvel that comes with youth. She’s the heart of the film. Everybody else is just a broadly drawn caricature.
One of the main problems in this film is the children’s relationship with Narnia itself. At no point do they just stop and stare in amazement. They don’t really question what’s going on around them. They don’t appreciate that they are in a world of fantasy. With Lucy, it’s believable because a child so young is prone to fantasy and believes something like Narnia could really exist. The rest of the kids just seem apathetic. They take it in stride. At one point Susan does yell out: “He’s a Beaver! He shouldn’t be talking at all!” No kidding, and there shouldn’t be magical worlds you can enter from through the back of a wardrobe either but they never really stop to think about that.
They just plunge forth in mostly oblivious fashion through the entire movie. The children learn of a White Witch who has seized control over Narnia and wants to keep it cold and cruel all year, as well as a leader named Aslan who can fight her. Their presence in Narnia is to meet up with Aslan and save the world. Again, they seem to mostly just take it all in stride.
A word on Narnia itself. Visually, this film is dull, muted and unpleasant to look at. The part of Narnia that is ruled by the White Witch should work that way. In a place where it’s winter year round because of an evil spell the atmosphere should be cold, gray and unpleasant. But the other parts of Narnia shown in the film are equally unappealing to the eye. There’s no beautiful landscapes, bright colors or pleasant images. The reds, blues and yellows are all slightly dark. The entire film is shot in this bizarre, muted, drab visual style and it cheapens everything. The viewer should be in awe of Narnia, but in this movie it’s just not interesting to look at.
The film also fails to successfully integrate the use of CGI and real landscapes. There are a lot of moments in this film where the human characters seem to be visually standing in front of a green screen and not legitimately interacting with anything around them. The CGI animals such as Aslan the Lion or the talking Beavers that accompany the children or the gang of wolves that chase them look terribly unconvincing and the characters certainly never appear to be legitimately interacting with anything. The battle scene at the end of the film, which has dominated most of the trailers but is only actually about 10 minutes worth of movie, is like most every battle scene in any movie from the last 20 years where people gather in large fields and aimlessly kill each other.
There is no spectacle in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There is no emotional investment. Everything unfolds in the right order but nothing draws you in. It’s bland from both a visual standpoint and a storytelling standpoint. The film is making a ton of money, and it should given the marketing campaign, family friendly rating and historical legacy about the novel but I can’t help but wonder how many people are just flocking to this movie, leaving it indifferently and moving on to tell their friends “yeah we saw Narnia, it was great.” The director, Andrew Adamson only had previous work in cartoons and visual effects.
He made the wonderfully witty, clever, funny, and visually interesting Shrek as well as it’s sequel. He has only ever dealt with animation; fictionalized visual creations and I wonder if that hurt his ability to work with humans and to tell a compelling story using real people. When the next chapter in the Narnia film comes out hopefully they can hire a director with a better flair for storytelling and put some general interest into a well-written series of stories rather than just crank out another assembly line blockbuster.