Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is another film that’s not, strictly speaking, a Christmas film; but given that half of it is set in a spectacular winter wonderland, and features throughout a covering of Christian allegory and a guest appearance from none other than Father Christmas, it seems more Christmassy than many an acknowledged seasonal favourite. And if Doctor Who reckons the story festive enough to cheerfully mine for ideas for its own Christmas Day special, then that’s good enough for me.
As the film title’s prefix indicates, this film had high hopes of being the next big franchise after The Lord of the Rings or following in the footsteps of Harry Potter. But the truth is that no matter how hard and earnestly it tries, it’s simply not in their league.
Most of the problems stem from the original source, material, CS Lewis’ beloved 1950 children’s story. It seems to be dating rather badly (in just the way that his Oxford University contemporary JRR Tolkien managed to avoid with the timeless LOTR, and of course is not a factor at all with JK Rowling’s modern day if mistily nostalgic Hogwarts tales) and be increasingly a product of its time, especially in its old-fashioned theological ideas. It’s simplistic Sunday School sensibilities are quaint but paper-thin, which is fine for a young child’s book but sits uneasily as the basis for a big on-screen epic with LOTR wannabee ambitions.
The four children at the heart of the story are sub-Enid Blyton caricatures as transparent in trait as Dorothy Gale’s travelling companions in Oz, but the film is well served by its four juvenile leads (William Moseley as Peter Pevensie, Anna Popplewell as Susan, Skandar Keynes as Edmund and Georgie Henley as the youngest sister Lucy) who seem even more impressive in their roles than their counterparts in the Harry Potter film franchise were at comparable ages.
And it’s just as well, because while Harry Potter knew to surround and support its young stars with the very finest thespian talent available in Britain at the time, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe doesn’t have recourse to this strategy. The story really only provides for one other human character (Tilda Swinton appropriately glacial as Jadis the White Witch.) There’s a couple of scenes from James McAvoy as a doe-eyed fawn and one from James Cosmo as Father Christmas, and some other grown ups including Jim Broadbent, Elizabeth Hawthorne and Judy McIntosh in the World War 2 framing sequences, but otherwise the kids are on their own with an army of mystical creatures created largely from CGI (although a few seem to be charmingly retro men-in-animal-head costumes.)
As the makers of the Twilight film saga will tell you, convincingly representing talking animals on screen even with state of the art computer effects is a precarious endeavour, and the talking wolves, foxes and eagles are frankly rather daft to all but the smallest kids and undermines the film’s attempts to be a ‘serious epic’. But where the director allows the animals to be represented as more patently anthropomorphised Disney-esque characters as in the case of Mr and Mrs Beaver (delightfully vocalised by Ray Winstone and Dawn French who bring genuine personality to both) it’s rather more successful.
So special credit must go to the creation of the film’s Aslan, which is a genuinely impressive piece of CGI and moreover brought to life with subtle gestures and mannerisms that properly match Liam Neeson’s vocals. The scene where Aslan goes to the Stone Table to meet with the White Witch is particularly well done – startlingly dark and unsettling in an otherwise bright and breezy film, with fears and anxieties wonderfully recreated on the CGI lion’s face as he nears his arch-nemesis.
Other parts of the film don’t live up to this, sadly. The climactic battle scene is a rudimentary affair and no match for their intricate, detailed and well-thought out equivalents in the LOTR films. Where those films accurately recreated siege and battle tactics down the ages, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe settles for just having two large CGI hoards run headlong into each other and then fight in a general morass. It is emblematic of the film’s lack of depth – and at times, evidence of where the director’s vision exceeds the producer’s grasp of budget, leaving the film looking threadbare in the FX polishing department in a number of scenes.
The film will doubtless delight children and those with fond memories of the book, and is certainly solidly enjoyable and well-made enough to earn at least three stars. But there are better, more appropriate treatments for this book rather than trying to make it into a LOTR/Harry Potter-style epic screen adventure – in fact radio might now be the best medium for this delicate, rather ageing story.
But to end on a positive note: the most important concept and moment of the book is surely when young Lucy (and the others in turn) make the trip out of the back of the eponymous wardrobe and find Narnia. The film gets this iconic moment just right. It’s hard not to be enchanted and thrilled and just a little envious as the children fight their way through the coats and suddenly fall out into the snowy forest. It’s the very stuff of dreams and of childhood imagination, and quite the best and most inspiring moment that the story presents to us in any of its many forms.
Shown on BBC1 on Christmas Eve at 5.50pm, and repeated on BBC Three on Friday December 30 at 7.55pm.