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THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE

2005, dir. Andrew Adamson
140 min. Rated PG.
Starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton.

Review by Justin Patterson

My wife is gone this weekend, so it's just me and the boys. What better to do than load up the new mommywagon and take them to see King Kong? I checked the listings and see that it's not coming until Tuesday. Crud. The Chronicles of Narnia is showing, though. We had all seen the previews and wanted to see the film, in varying degrees (interest ranged from "YEAH!" to "looks like Lord of the Rings").

But first...PREVIEWS!

Hoodwinked - Another version of the Little Red Riding Hood story, with lots of other tales thrown in. It looks to be kind of like Into the Woods, but animated. And funnier. We'll probably catch this one at the dollar movie.
Over the Hedge - I'm getting tired of animated films about talking animals, but this at least looked interesting. This looks to be another dollar movie, but the voice talent alone makes me want to see it. It's a veritable who's-who of master thespians: Bill Shatner, Wanda Sykes, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, Eugene Levy, Nick Nolte, Catherine O'Hara...
Ice Age 2: the Meltdown - We knew it was coming. Because I now have kids, this will wind up in the video collection. I may like it, but I'm not holding my breath.
Curious George - No, it's not a coming out film fresh from the Sundance Film Festival. It's another animated flick about one little monkey and the Man in the Yellow Hat. WAY below my age range for films, but it looks like the folks who made it really loved Curious George and tried to be true to the books. If you have little ones, this will probably be a safe bet.
Open Season - A deer teams up with a grizzly bear during hunting season. Just what we needed: another animated film with talking animals.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - It's not animated. It's not full of cute animals. The preview tells me almost nothing of the plot, except that Depp, Bloom and Knightley are all back. Oh, and Davey Jones looks like Cthulhu. This one is a must-see.
Cars - Talking, animated cars. Pass the acid, please.

Eat your heart out, Ted Nugent.

Anyway, I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a long time ago. It was probably somewhere right around fifth grade. I remember it as a simply written, allegorical piece that had Biblical tones. When we all first saw the previews for this movie, I remember thinking, "Holy crap! It looks more like Lord of the Rings than the book that I remember!" I am pleased to note that this impression didn't linger after seeing the film.

The premise is this: four children - siblings - are sent to the North of England during WWII to escape the Luftwaffe bombing runs. While staying in the house of a somewhat reclusive professor, the children discover that a wardrobe upstairs actually leads to a land called Narnia. There, they find fauns, centaurs, minotaurs, unicorns, griffins and all manner of creatures...except for humans. They are subsequently caught up in a plot by the White Witch to plunge the land into eternal winter. They are forced to flee and fight for their lives with the forces of Aslan, a giant lion who wants spring to return to the land.

That much, you could get by reading the back cover of the book.

First, I'll tell you that my overall impression was surprisingly good from a parental standpoint. When I have kids in tow, it's hard to look at things in any other light. The film did a good job of following the book. That is always appreciated. It was far better than I had thought it would be. It was interesting and held my attention without needing to resort to obvious ploys to keep me awake until the next bit of action. The characters are developed well enough that the audience can read sympathize with them and know how they will behave. The Biblical parallels are present, but you cannot hear Bibles being thumped by the production crew like you could in something like The Matrix: Revolutions.

What does this film have going for it? First off, the kids are great. The four siblings all have distinct personalities and the four actors do a great job (no Dakota Fannings here) of getting us to understand where they're coming from. Their acting is believable, and they look enough alike that it's easy enough to think of them as family. They relate well to each other and have real chemistry. They make it easy for us to see the pride, the jealousy, the hurt and the wonder of the situation without ramming it down our collective throats.

Tilda Swinton does a masterful job portraying the White Witch. I had thoroughly enjoyed her as Gabriel in Constantine, and this movie has cemented her in my brain as someone to really watch in the coming years. We can believe her plotting and scheming. We can understand how she's able to manipulate the youngsters. When the situation escalates into a full-fledged battle between good and evil, though, Swinton really shines. From the chilling moment that she appears in a chariot being pulled by two polar bears, we can believe that she's the one who is driving this film. In the fight scenes, Swinton moves with the grace and ferocity and assurance of a warrior born. That, dear readers, is something that gave this movie a lot of credit in my book.

The leader of the Good Guys is Aslan, a giant lion. They needed a Voice for the lion, so they looked to Liam Neeson. You could probably name a dozen other actors who could have pulled off the job just as well (James Earl Jones comes immediately to mind), but Neeson does well enough. The only reason that I feel the need to mention his presence in the film is that this is yet another occasion in which he portrays the Bearded Mentor-Warrior Who Dies. I'm guessing that he either hasn't read Chad's imploring letter, or he just doesn't care about what Mr. Shonk has to say.

The CGI was adequate. The film has all manner of miraculous beasts, and the filmmakers did a good enough job with them. They are not flawless, though. We can tell that they're CGI, but that strangely doesn't detract from the film. Instead, it somehow reinforces the notion that this IS a fantasy world. In other films, that would be a problem. In Narnia, it just reminds us that this is NOT real at the same time that it's intensely real. Make sense?

If you're a fan of the books, I wouldn't have a problem recommending this movie to you. It has some moments in which you notice that it's not perfectly made, but it's true enough to the books and well-enough made that it's worth seeing it on the big screen. I must warn you, though, that it is NOT the kind of movie to which you should take small children. Yes, it has talking animals and all kinds of cuteness, but it has some incredibly dark and violent parts.

There are some obvious influences at work in this film - LOTR and several others. Still, it's done well enough that those moments of recognition are only worthy of chuckles and don't really detract from the film. Was it worth $8.50 for me? I wouldn't have gone to see it at full price except for the fact that I had the boys with me. All things considered, though, I don't regret it. Though not perfect, it's charming and thrilling enough that I would consider going to see it again with my wife when she gets home. Your best bet for this one would be to catch it as a matinee or at the dollar movie. It's worth seeing on the big screen, especially in light of the fact that all six of the other Narnia books have been optioned for future films.

Give it a shot.

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