Like so many others of my generation, and anyone slightly younger who caught it on repeats or VHS/DVD, the BBC adaptation of The Chronicles Of Narnia retains a special place in my heart. I recently bought the boxset, although I haven't been brave enough to revisit it yet. Whatever you think of various aspects of it (the religious allegory running through it, how irritating the kids can be, how it struggles to remain exciting whenever the White Witch is offscreen), there's no denying that The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is a classic fantasy tale for children of all ages. Which makes it unsurprising that it got the cinematic treatment at a time when so many companies were desperate to find "the next Harry Potter". I'm just surprised that it took so long.
I'm also surprised that it was this weak, although perhaps that is more to do with the inherent flaws of the source material.
The story may be well known, but I'll recap it anyway. Siblings Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) are all bundled off during wartime to live in a large house in the country. While playing a game of hide and seek one day, Lucy hides in a wardrobe, stepping further back into the depths of it until she ends up in the magical land of Narnia. Nobody else believes her, of course, when she finds her way back to wartime Britain, but it's only a matter of time until they all end up in the wardrobe, and all end up in Narnia. They find themselves in danger, thanks to a prophecy that means the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) wants them killed, but all might be well, thanks to the magical Aslan (a lion, voiced by Liam Neeson) and his army of friendly creatures willing to defy the will of the White Witch.
In terms of production value and design, there's nothing wrong with this movie. Pacing issues aside, it has a runtime of just over two and a quarter hours, everything is in place for what should be a wonderful fantasy adventure.
Director Andrew Adamson, who delivered a lot of fun with the first two Shrek movies, should have been an easy fit for the material. He also helps adapt the C. S. Lewis book, alongside Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely. Which may be where things first went awry. You see, there's a feeling throughout this movie that nobody wants to be responsible for messing it up, either due to reverence for the source material or the responsibility of setting up a potential franchise, or both. The spectacle and adventure is there, the sense of fun is not.
It's also not helped by the fact that almost every child actor is eminently slappable. No offence to those playing the main roles, it's the way they are written (although the younger two, played by Henley and Keynes make it a bit worse with some added precociousness). The older cast members all do great work. James McAvoy is a lovely Mr. Tumnus, Tilda Swinton is superbly fierce as the White Witch, and memorable voice performances are delivered by Ray Winstone, Dawn French, Rupert Everett and, of course, Liam Neeson (lending his timbre and gravitas to the role of the mighty Aslan).
Perhaps the biggest problems with The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe are twofold, the flaws inherent in the source material and the fact that many other movies from the past couple of decades did this kind of grand adventure much better. There's nothing here that is bad enough to make it unwatchable. It's just all quite perfunctory, when it should have used the bloated runtime to revel in an excess of memorable characters and visions.
Also, a problem with both this and the sequels, can we all just agree that Aslan is a Superlion who could always help everyone a lot sooner than he does? Bloody poser, just waiting for his big moment in the finale to save the day and then pretend it was a close call.
You can buy the boxset here.
Americans can get the movies here.