Essentially little more than a children’s fantasy film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — what a title! — is the first adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ seven-story book series. How faithful an adaptation is it? I don’t know. I’ve never read the books. But I know that as a movie it’s largely successful thanks to its fantastic special effects, uninspired yet exciting plot, and despite being over 140 minutes in length, it never feels that long thanks to great pacing.
The basic premise is this: Four children are evacuated from their house because of invading Germans, they find a wardrobe that leads to the magical land of Narnia, and they then find themselves caught in the middle of a war between a lion and an evil queen, all of which has apparently been foretold in some sort of prophecy. How’s that for a premise? Sure, it’s not exactly unique or even that creative, but it combines a lot of elements and allows for a sprawling story with a colorful cast of characters and enough action to satisfy those who require a lot of action.
The kids, from oldest to youngest: Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skander Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley). Lucy is the one who first finds Narnia, which the other children don’t believe. Eventually, they all wind up in this fantasy world, one in which animals are sentient and are able speak. The evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) wants to … be evil, I guess. Her big plan seems to be to keep Narnia in an eternal winter. The main good guy is a lion named Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson), who along with the kids will lead an army in an attempt to defeat the White Witch once and for all.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe winds up being a relatively generic fantasy affair, but given how long ago the books were written, one could assume that films have been borrowing from them for all this time, meaning it only makes sense that now that a film adaptation has been released, it seems generic and derivative. Regardless, it might be the first such film that a child is going to see, and since it is primarily aimed at children, following a tried-and-true story arc makes sense.
The kids are helped along the way by beavers and centaurs, and while the film isn’t constant action, it does conclude with a massive battle — because that’s what’s required in a post-Lord of the Rings universe, I guess. There is action between the time when the kids reach Narnia and this climactic battle, although they’re smaller in scale. Much of that time in the film’s second act is world building, character development, and running away from the bad guys.
There aren’t many moments in this 145-minute film that are boring. Sure, a bit of trimming probably could have removed about 10 minutes, but for the most part, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe justifies its running time. These types of fantasy adventures can usually fill out that amount of time, and this one does just that. It’s well-paced and contains very little filler. Most of what it shows is necessary and interesting.
A great deal of the film works as pure spectacle. The special effects are fantastic. The animals that have been created with CGI looks very realistic. You can tell they’re CGI, especially when they do human-like actions, but for the most part the CGI is great and you can tell a large amount of work was put into making the animals look real. Narnia also winds up being a place of wonder — as it should — and you can spend several minutes at a time just looking at it.
If there’s a real problem with the film it’s that it has been hampered by its family-film approach. It’s for kids, and some of the things it does need to be played incredibly safe and tame in order to (1) be “family friendly” and (2) keep its PG rating. When you read a book, your imagination does a lot of the work and you kind of get to decide how risky some parts play out. In the film version, any ambiguity is removed in favor of the safest choice. The final battle, for instance, is about as deadly as a pillow fight.
It’s surprising how good the children are, especially because this is the first big project for any of them — and if I’m not mistaken a couple of them had no previous acting experience. This isn’t deep acting, but acting alongside CGI creatures is difficult enough for adults, let alone newbie actors. They bring certain elements to their characters, too, meaning you can tell their personalities apart. Names like Tilda Swinton, Liam Neeson, James McAvoy, Ray Winsonte and Jim Broadbent round out the supporting cast.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a good fantasy adventure film, especially considering it’s aimed primarily at children. That it can be this good with its relatively safe screenplay and family friendly appeal is a testament to the source material and the filmmakers. It’s exciting, action-packed, and has some interesting elements to it. It might not be a grand slam from start to finish, but for a 145-minute kids’ film, it does its job very well.