01/01/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper
Disney Studios brings the best-known chapter of C. S. Lewis's Narnia books to the screen, says Mark. Shooting in New Zealand is only one way in which this film mimics The Lord Of The Rings. But somehow one never really cares much for the four children who generally just do the obvious. Aslan is a big lion, but also just a cipher and is much less interesting than even Kong.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10.
Warning: this review has minor spoilers as well as insufficient awe for a beloved children's story.
After Star Wars proved to be a lucrative hit at the box office Disney Studios decided to play in the same field with a me-too production, THE BLACK HOLE. It was of considerably lower quality. The logical series for Disney to make in response to The Lord Of The Rings is the "Narnia" series of C. S. Lewis. Lewis supposedly wrote the series in response to The Hobbit by his friend, J. R. R. Tolkien.
I have to admit that after very much liking Peter Jackson's interpretation of The Lord Of The Rings I was rather anticipating seeing what could be done with the Narnia books. I came away with memories of cold little scenes and big digital battles. Even knowing the story's mythic meaning, I felt that the story came off as rather trivial.
We don't know much about the villain except that she is bad, bad, bad, and has made the land live always in winter, but never in Christmas. Everybody seems to know what Christmas is, but most people do not believe in the existence of humans. If they don't believe in humans, what exactly do they think that Christmas is?
But I am getting ahead of myself. This is the Lewis story of four siblings who were evacuated from London during the blitz. They are sent to the relative safety of a huge mansion in the countryside. Life there is excruciatingly dull except for the games the children play together. A game of Hide-and-Seek leads the youngest, Lucy (Georgie Henley), to hide in an old wardrobe, only to discover that behind the old coats is a gate into Narnia, a world of mythical creatures and talking animals.
Soon all four children are in this world and are the key to the battle between the evil White Witch and the noble ruler of the land, Aslan the noble lion. (Would people have objected if I called him "Aslan the talking Lion?" It is a little hard to think of him as so noble after he cons all of his friends while conning the White Witch.) Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, two beavers who talk but never say their reaction to the enormous fur coats that the children wear, accompany the children on their journey.
For an American film the film feels very British. (Interesting trivia question: I can think of many American films set in Britain, but only two British films set largely in the United States. Those would be Phase IV and much of Goldfinger. What others are there?) It took a moment for me to realize one of the characters was actually Father Christmas. Oddly, nobody notices that his joyful gifts for the boys are actually lethal weapons for the children to use, and painful weapons at that. The sword looks like a particularly nasty piece of work.
The problem is that Aslan may be noble, but he is a long way from being an interesting character. He is guided by philosophical principles that are never very clear. And though he manages to get human expressions on a lion face, he is too lofty be earn much viewer respect. The four children also remain undeveloped as characters. The viewer is expected to like them mostly because they are children, but we never see very far into their character and each follows the path of least resistance. (Admittedly that leads the boys into a battle, but it is still the path of least resistance.)
What makes them important is not what they think or what they do or even believe but simply who they happen to be, the fulfilment of a convenient prophecy. The battle scenes, which are intricate but uninvolving, show imaginative CGI but are still not very interesting. The issue being fought over seems to be equally unengaging. You have the people who wanted it always winter and never Christmas against the people who wanted some warmer weather and occasional Christmases. Of course, since the film was shot in New Zealand, most of the crew probably felt you could even have both at the same time.
The film has some of the standard and expected problems of Disney films. With few exceptions the good people are all attractive and the bad people all unattractive. Disney films seem to have an on-again, off-again relationship with wolves. The wolves in this film are not the good wolves of Never Cry Wolf and The Journey Of Natty Gann. They are the mean, evil wolves of Beauty And The Beast.
The story is nicely visualized but just never grabbed me. I freely admit this is just not my preferred flavour of fantasy. The film has many problems, most probably attributable to the original story.
I give this film a disappointing +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2005 Mark R. Leeper