Wednesday, 17 May 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia (2005) DVD

Yes, Chronicles looks flat and low budget despite its CGI

My wish is that by 2050, the world will come to see the Narnia and LOTR sagas as what they really are: reactionary post-war propaganda. Tolkien and Lewis reacted to the horrors of the two World Wars by retreating into fantasy, to worlds where the good were the beautiful and the ugly were the wicked, where the good and the just, guided by values of loyalty, duty, sacrifice, heroism and leadership, are called upon to wage war and lay waste to their enemies. In the real world, the Nazis believed in the superiority of the beautiful Aryan race and all those values as well.

However, we don’t have to wait 44 years to realise that Narnia can’t hold a candle to Middle Earth. While being close friends, members of the same society, and fellow devout Christians, JRR Tolkien was contemptuous of the work of CS Lewis. He (and a succession of literary critics) complained the Narnia series was blatantly and naively theological. As this movie is a reasonably faithful screen adaptation of the novel, the criticisms still ring true.

For readers who have not read the book, here’s the quick summary. Packed off to a remote country estate during the height of the Battle of Britain, the 4 Pevensie siblings discover a portal in a wardrobe to the magical world of Narnia, ruled by the devious and cruel White Witch, who has smothered the land under a hundred-year winter. The sibs are recruited by the underground resistance of talking animals and mythological creatures to lead the army to reclaim Narnia for its creator and true ruler, the messianic lion Aslan.

Both in print and on screen, the best way to look at The Chronicles of Narnia is to treat it as LOTR for children – a watered down and more naïve LOTR. Take, for example, the call to heroism of ordinary folk (the Pevensie children here, the hobbits there). In the movie, the children fight the war largely because every creature (including Tilda Swinton’s White Witch) addresses them as kings and queens. Morally shallow, their decision is borne out of the escapist fantasy of every child to be a secret royalty in a faraway land.

Perhaps director Andrew Adamson’s biggest mistake is to latch the final act of the movie on a grand battle. Bloodless and whitewashed, the battle lacks the grand feel or the sense of real danger of the battle in Return of the King, which audiences will involuntarily be reminded of. On the screen, the landscape of Narnia lacks the sense of wonderment evoked in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, even though Chronicles was also filmed in New Zealand. It’s just a snow field with a tiny pointy castle, and a field in a valley. After the magical creatures in LOTR and even Harry Potter, the animals here come across as pedestrian and unmagical.

Even the sacrifice of Aslan at the Stone Table is unconvincing. The Christian symbolism in the dialogue (“It is done!” Liam Neeson’s Aslan proclaims at one point) was laid on so thick my head is ringing from the impact. Visually and theatrically, though, the scene was laughable – the messiah’s humiliation by the White White and her minions is rather tame – they merely shaved off his mane. I was hoping for some jeering, spitting, and the throwing of rotten food items. This entire scene should’ve been directed by Mel Gibson instead.

Adamson is so faithful to Lewis’s original novel that he does not inject any modern sensibilities in the movie, or update it for the new millennium. Unlike the directors of Harry Potter and LOTR, when Adamson does make up scenes and details on his own, he fails drastically to improve on the source material. Take for example the final battle between the two forces, where falcons and phoenixes are used to pummel the White Witch’s army with rock and fire. Poor CS Lewis will be aghast at the idea that the British children would employ Luftwaffe bombing tactics on their evil foes. Or the inclusion of a new Badger character, an offscreen friend of Beaver. Mr. Beaver has a secret tunnel leading from his dam to Badger's house (although he has always told his wife that it led to his Mum’s). Mrs Beaver disapproves of the amount of time Beaver spent with Badger, leading us to think there would be a Brokeback Mountain scene somewhere.

The cardboard movie is saved by the acting of Tilda Swinton, who looks like the only actor in the cast having fun on the set. Menacing and palpably evil, she brings the limp landscape to life in all her scenes. Honourable mentions go to Georgie Henley, the lone Pevensie sibling who exudes real wonder in the strange world of Narnia.

I read all 7 of Lewis’s Narnia books as a child. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is easily the best book of the series, which got even more blatantly Christian and hectoring with each successive book. If Adamson intends to make a franchise out of Narnia, I hope this isn’t as good as it gets.

DVD Extras

The blooper reel, showing various production errors and the cast having fun, is the best of the 3 features for the normal edition DVD. Yet the problem is that you’ll have to be very interested to watch the entire movie over and over again to get the full use of the extras. And you’ll be more than reminded of the little imperfections of the Chronicles of Narnia with every viewing.

There are 2 audio commentaries. The director and his stars have some fun recounting their favourite scenes in the movie, but the tykes are silent in the parts that aren’t their favourites. This track is missable. The second one, with the director and his production team, is slightly more interesting, as they explain their efforts to create the sets of Narnia, given some unexpected hitches.

First published at incinemas on 17 May 2006

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