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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
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The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Directed by Andrew Adamson
Disney/Walden Media
140 minutes (PG rating)

Commentary by Kevin Miller

If you were a beaver and four humans showed up on your doorstep wearing fur coats, would you let them in? I certainly would have second thoughts. Funny how that idea never occurred to me before, even though I’ve read about the Pevensie children’s first encounter with the talking beavers of Narnia countless times. It just serves to illustrate the difference between experiencing a work of literature in your imagination and viewing it on the big screen. Suddenly things look a whole lot different—some better, some worse.

It also raises the question as to whether such stories are best left to the imagination. I’m still trying to decide in terms of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Perhaps the choice would have been easier if I had enjoyed the film more than I did.

It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why I failed to connect with this movie. It certainly wasn’t for lack of solid visual effects. They were everything a Narnia fan could hope for—centaurs, fauns, Cyclops, minotaurs, talking beavers and horses—all looking as real as the humans with whom they interacted. Aslan, in particular, exceeded expectations, as well he should have. With more than five million individually rendered hairs and up to fifty animators working exclusively on him alone, anything less than virtual realism would have been a tragic disappointment.

But as stunning as Aslan and a number of the other creatures were, most of them were really nothing more than beautifully rendered extras—fodder for the battle sequences, background actors with one or two lines or a brief close-up to add a sense of realism. They looked great, but we never really got a chance to connect with them emotionally, and so I found it difficult to care what happened to them in the end.

The same could be said for most of the human characters. For the most part, the acting was serviceable, but at times it felt like the performers were struggling within the confines of a mediocre script. Surprisingly, Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch, seemed to have the most trouble. After seeing Swinton’s scintillating performance as the quasi-evil half-angel Gabriel in Constantine, I was eager to see her go all the way over to the dark side in her portrayal of the White Witch.

While she definitely looked the part, whenever she spoke, it seemed like she was reaching for a sense of significance that the lines just couldn’t give. The one exception is the scene where she kills Aslan. This was one of the rare moments when she came close to realizing the full potential of her character. Even then, however, the scene lacked the sense of cosmic significance that undergirded nearly every moment of Narnia’s literary and cinematic cousin, The Lord of the Rings.

I think that is the real problem with this film: It lacks gravitas. Even at 140 minutes, it just didn’t seem long enough for us to really get to know the main characters or the underlying mythology of Narnia. The best it can do is tell us that four human children are needed to fill the thrones at Cair Paravel, but it never tells us why. We’re left wondering why four children are required, who sat in the thrones before the children arrived, who built Cair Paravel, and how the White Witch gained control of Narnia in the first place.

I fully realize that these same answers are missing from the novel. But couldn’t the filmmakers have taken a few liberties with the text to clarify things, much like Peter Jackson did by inserting some of the background material into The Lord of the Rings to flesh out Aragorn’s identity? Surely Lewis addressed these questions elsewhere in his writings, and I don’t think too many people would have objected if his explanations were introduced into the film.

As it stands, without these answers on screen, it’s difficult to become caught up in events like the epic battle sequence that forms this film’s climax. We know the good guys are going to win, and we know that will be a positive thing for Narnia. But it would mean a lot more if we knew, as we did in Lord of the Rings, what was at stake should they fail—and that there was a good chance they might do just that.

I realize that some people may think that comparisons to Tolkien’s epic are unfair, since Tolkien wrote for adults and Lewis wrote Narnia for children. However, I see no reason why children’s literature or movies should be held to a lesser standard. Good storytelling is good storytelling no matter who your target audience is. If anything, books and films aimed at children should be held to a higher standard, because they become a child’s primal reading/viewing experience.

Despite my overall disappointment with this film, one aspect of my past reading experience that it did tap into, at least momentarily, was the sense of wonder and excitement I felt surrounding the possibility that there might be more to the world than I thought—far more, in fact. This story was one of the first to make me hope that there might also be more to me. Like Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan, I may have a purpose and destiny far beyond anything I had ever imagined.

That is the true power of stories like Narnia or Harry Potter, I think. While we all sense there’s more to life than meets the eye, the characters in these stories actually get to witness this deeper reality firsthand. Their experiences fill us with hope and excitement that we too can make the same sort of discovery one day. And I definitely believe that we can.

That said, when adapting such a universally renowned book—probably the best piece of children’s literature ever written—you can’t be content to make a good film. It has to be a great film. Unfortunately, the makers of this film didn’t seem to be aware of that.

I have no doubt that someone could have made a cinematic masterpiece out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. However, that someone just happened to be too busy adapting another work about a fifty-foot ape. Too bad, because I doubt we will get this chance again. Perhaps it’s for the best though because rather than letting some filmmaker do the imagining for us, we will just have to read the books for ourselves if we want to experience the true magic of Narnia.

Copyright @ 2005 Kevin Miller


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