I've seen The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And there's a very simple way to tell you why this movie doesn't work:
To-day's audiences are too jaded and emotionally atrophied for the real The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It's my belief that everything that's wrong with the movie--say, 81.7% of it--can be traced back to that problem. This was not the time for The Chronicles of Narnia to be made major motion pictures.
It's really too bad, too, because, at one time, Disney would've been the perfect studio to make The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Imagine if the folks that made Snow White had done this? That might have been beautiful.
I will say I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I was going to. I mostly liked the actors, and I was particularly surprised by how much I liked Lucy, who is very good, except when she cries, but I won't moan about that as it's probably hard to get convincing crying out of child actors, even generally good ones. I liked Edmund and his perpetual frown that reminded me of Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures. I liked the beavers--they were fun and engaging, almost exactly like they were in the book. I adored Tilda Swinton as the witch--she was threatening, beautiful, and cunning. I bet a lot of people left the theatre wishing she'd won (I know I did). I loved the design of the armour and costumes. Richard Taylor's team prove once again that they are brilliant at crafting these things. The colour schemes are very different from the Lord of the Rings costumes, with silvery armour and bright red, blue, and green tunics. It reminded me a lot of the Technicolor Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, which, to my mind, is the absolutely perfect note to strike with this material.
But my absolute favourite part of the movie was when Lucy came across the lamp post and met Tumnus. It was the only time in the movie where I actually sort of felt like I was looking at Narnia.
And the interaction between Tumnus and Lucy is, I suspect, one of the few pieces of the story that Andrew Adamson was able to connect with enough to actually put some heart into. It's also why the beavers worked--these were both Shrek-like bits; animals and mythical creatures talking absurdly like familiar humans, to humorous effect.
As for what I didn't like, I'll start at the beginning;
I'd heard a long time ago about Adamson deciding to make the opening scene be the bombing of London by Nazi Germany during World War II, even though this is not in the book, nor does the book begin on even remotely the same foot. When I first heard about it, I thought perhaps Adamson was trying to suggest that Narnia was in fact a means through which the children are coping with their experience of real war, with real death. I don't know if I'd necessarily mind such a story, but such a story is not The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The book's a fantasy, yes, but such a manoeuvre with the movie would be to make a fantasy within a fantasy--essentially, it would be assuming the audience is too jaded and emotionally atrophied to take fantasy at face value. They'd need it justified with a reality check, a VH1's behind the scenes this-is-what-we're-literally-saying device, nothing so eloquent as actual art, thank you.
Now, having seen the movie, I'm not sure Adamson's intent was anything so complicated. What the opening scene actually felt like was a sucker punch. Like Adamson felt the movie needed a big opening, and he needed to throw in the trauma of the childrens' separation from their mother, which we get in the following scene where they part at the train station. It felt like a cheap trick to get us emotionally involved, but it didn't work at all because we don't know the characters yet, and the shots of the bombing are terrifically dull. For one thing, it begins in the air with the German planes, then cuts to the interior of one of their cockpits. Since the shots aren't particularly interesting, and look fake, and the pilot is pretty anonymous in his mask, we don't really have a point of view yet, so the effect is somewhat inferior to what stock footage of actual WWII planes might have been.
And beginning the movie with emotional trauma is just a bad idea, as I think Lewis could have pointed out. He didn't begin the book that way, and with good reason--kids are resilient and not usually accustomed to grief and horrific stress. You really have to take them through it; you can't just drop them right in, particularly when your uncommunicative filmmaking style isn't helping.
The professor's house is introduced decently enough, and at this point in the movie, I was making a concerted effort to not be bothered, since I wasn't sure yet whether my chafing from the opening wasn't due to preconceptions. I was really watching Lucy because I remembered not much liking the look of her in the trailer. What's interesting is I don't feel like I actually got a look at her until after she went through the wardrobe. The scenes of the children in the mansion involve some sub-par dialogue and some very quick cuts, which reminded me of a quote I'd heard of Sergio Leone saying about the movies he saw in his youth never giving you time to actually look at the stars' faces. Leone, of course, was known for his long close up shots, so maybe his perspective was peculiar, but it's movies like this that give me an idea of how he must have felt.
The introduction of the White Witch was good--as I said, Swinton was a goddess on screen. But her dwarf henchman, described as hideous in the book, was far too cute, and made the audience giggle far too much.
It was nice seeing the kids deliver Lewis dialogue at Tumnus's house, where Edmund argues that Tumnus was a criminal, and we know why he would say that, and it's subtle character stuff. But those spots dissolve far too quickly into dumbed-down one liners.
One of the movie's biggest problems is that Aslan aggressively doesn't work. He looks very cartoonish, is introduced rather off-handedly, and we never sense the grandeur of Aslan as we do in the book, mostly because I don't think Adamson even began to know how to pull it off. I feel bad for the lion during the stone table scene, but only because I wouldn't want to see that happen to anyone, and absent is the shock of seeing the mighty Aslan so dressed-down. It made me a little uncomfortable, as though I was sitting through the funeral of a complete stranger.
The battle sequence at the end fails miserably, as Adamson attempts weakly to find a middle ground between modern, action war epics, and the unabashedly fairy tale quality of the story. It could have worked, but what it needed was a new vision, one that could interpret the fairy tale battle to moving pictures, instead of imitating Braveheart and The Lord of the Rings. There are several shots that are almost replicas of ones from Lord of the Rings, such as a minotaur standing on a rock, waving his hordes forward. Or the first clash of the armies, which looks identical to the warg battle in The Two Towers.
Again and again, I was impressed by the fact that Adamson wasn't up to this. There were too many obvious day-for-night shots, which Peter Jackson doggedly avoided, going so far as to do a month of night shoots for Helm's Deep. It's particularly bad in the stone table scene, where the table is obviously on a sound stage, with complete darkness outside the ring of torches, while Susan and Lucy are clearly looking on from a completely different, outdoor location, which glows blue with the lens filter. When the girls are finally at Aslan's side, on the table set, green screen is used to put the location shot in the background.
I was astonished by how many obviously artificial backgrounds there were in this movie, where there very clearly didn't need to be. One shot had Peter artificially placed in front of his tent. I mean, just a canvas wall, for gods' sakes! Adamson, if you can't plan ahead properly, then at least have the mivonks to do proper pick-ups once in a while.
Anyway, it was, after all, Adamson's first live-action movie, and only his third movie of any kind. All he'd done before were the Shrek movies, the success of which, of course, brought him this project.
I've only seen the first Shrek, and I liked it. But what made that movie good? Sly, post modernist humour. The sort that connects with--yes--a jaded and emotionally atrophied audience. I'm not suggesting it's bad. Not at all. Merely that it's almost the polar opposite of the unabashed, earnest fantasy of the Narnia books. Which also makes Narnia the polar opposite of what audiences these days are open to.
So. Maybe we can try again in twenty or thirty years . . .