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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
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When we watch a film in the theatre, or on our television screen, the work of the director should, almost always, be invisible to us. As an audience we expect to respond to what we see on screen: the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the pace, the atmosphere. Those are the elements everyone has labored to provide for us. Even the films of Alfred Hitchcock, that most visible of directors, are usually so compelling that we don't stop to wonder about the little man behind the curtain. Quentin Tarantino, who intrudes his personality as much as any director working today, is careful to hide behind the outrageous, the witty, the ironic, the exciting; it's only after his films end that we think of how he contrived his miracles.
All of which is a long way round to saying that the problem with "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," and the reason it is less by far than it should be, is Andrew Adamson, the film's director. Without going into filmschool-speak, let me point out that Mr. Adamson has done two particularly bad things. First, he has badly cast his key actor, the child playing Lucy Pevensie, Georgie Henley. Lucy's imagination and willingness to open herself to the unexpected should lead us and her siblings into the adventure. She should be our reference point, our surrogate. Instead, he has cast a flat-faced, uninteresting-looking child who has only two expressions - an open-faced grin and a sorrowful pout. She no more inhabits Lucy than I do. Think of what a child like Dakota Fanning, admittedly a brilliant natural actress, could make of that character, using her natural wit and grace to make believers of us all. Surely there are more good young child actors in England than this one. Moreover, Mr. Adamson insists on shooting his children only in extreme closeup, head-on, so that we are likely to think we're watching a police lineup instead of an adventure.
And second, Mr. Adamson has lost us with his bad pacing. He holds interminably on some shots, so that we are compelled to wait for a reaction or a line of dialogue; and he speeds through sequences that should have been left open to breathe. He has also chosen to lean unnecessarily on the children's fears of the professor's housekeeper, when they have arrived in the country before Lucy's discovery of the wardrobe, which throws the early part of the film out of kilter.
Having said all that, there are some marvelous things in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," and the best of them is Tilda Swinton, the White Witch. Swinton has always had one of the great voices in film, but here she is beautiful, insinuating, graceful, seductive and hateful all at the same time. The early scene in which she seduces Edmund (Skandar Keynes) by telling him that he can be a king and treating him to Turkish Delights, is a masterpiece of acting. Likewise, the choice of Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan the lion is wonderfully believable for this, yes, Christ-like character who sacrifices himself for the good of the world.
Ray Winstone and Dawn French, the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, are given the film's few witty throwaway lines, and they do very well with them. James McAvoy, as Mr. Tumnus the faun, is also fine, as is James Cosmo as Father Christmas. And the special effects work too: the lion's mouth and jaws are so natural that we believe he is speaking. Mr. McAvoy, with hoofs for feet and fur on his legs, is also believable. The beavers too move naturally and with the appropriate motion of beavers on land.
But the climactic battle seems to have been lifted bodily from Peter Jackson's choreography for "The Lord of the Rings." Two massed armies are set in the same New Zealand mountains as those films, with the same charges and countercharges, the same closeups of individual thrusts and parries. By now the power has gone out of this kind of staging, and so what should be an emotional climax to the story ends up as something far less worthy. We can only hope that whoever directs the next film in the series will do better; C.S. Lewis deserves a film that matches his imagination.
12/9/05 <! new pasted review ends on line above>