New Line has "Lord of the Rings", Warner Bros. has "Harry Potter", and now Disney makes its valiant attempt to kickstart a major fantasy franchise all its own with the first and best known of C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" books. The good news is Director Andrew Adamson and gang have done an impressive job of adapting Lewis' admittedly simple and somewhat thin tale into a big scale motion picture, delivering impressive production values and few solid action sequences along with the book's key emotional moments of tragedy and elation.
Unfortunately the film doesn't quite reach the success level of those other two aforementioned cornerstones of fantasy literature cum movie franchises. Outside of Rings & Potter, the Narnia series is probably the most well known series of fantasy fiction in history, but unlike those two which were long, richly detailed novels aimed at young adults or older, Narnia were very much children's books. Lewis' tales were simple fables done in a ruthlessly efficient writing style that never had the depth or level of detail of its magical world setting that Rowling or Tolkien's series ever did.
Consequently the film, which is slavishly loyal to the material, doesn't have to edit or cut scenes from the original story but rather extends them out to provide more detail (Edmond's subplot in particular seems to have been effectively expanded). Sadly even with the additions, the film cannot overcome some of the problems inherit to the original story - difficulties the pre-teen crowd are unlikely to notice but adults will find issue with, even more so now after the high standards set by richer and more polished efforts in the genre of late. Like it or not the plot and characters are pretty thin and flat, and despite a commendable job to give them extra depth there's little to work with.
A lot of the problems have to do with the story's tone which shifts wildly - something not particularly noticeable in print but blatantly obvious onscreen. One minute its almost stupidly childish with cheesy dialogue, silly character behaviours and jokes that would find laughs only with the toddlers crowd. From the polite talk of tea and turkish delight, to the sudden appearance of Santa Claus who seems to act as this franchise's equivalent of Q from the Bond movies, some scenes whilst not cringe-worthy are simply extraneous filler which could've well used the chop.
Quite often though it'll suddenly veer into dark territory involving death, sacrifice, animal slaughter and abuse to a level I would be hesitant about letting anyone who counts their age in a single figure see. As its a Disney film and rated PG, there's an overall sanitised look to proceedings with little to no blood seen despite some quite intense fighting, killing, and the gruesome night time 'table' scene left intact and played out to full extent. Other bits such as Lewis ending which is preserved, is prone to generate dissatisfaction or even laughs more than the story originally intended.
Subtext is another issue. Much has always been publicised about the Christianity element of the story, something which can definitely be seen in one small subplot towards the film's end, but its certainly not as overt as has been publicised. Other moments however generate subtext all their own, most notably the early scenes with Lucy and Tumnus which may have played out perfectly innocently on paper in 1950 but on screen in 2005 there's an almost darkly humoured pedophilia undercurrent - after all a half-naked hirsute man takes a young girl back to his house, locks her in, drugs her, and upon waking tells her "I've done a very naughty thing". If it wasn't for the two people in the scene being so genuinely sweet, it might have been a disaster.
Effects work veers wildly. Many of the creatures do look computer animated, and yet are still quite convincing - the beavers, fictional creatures like the Griffins, and Tumnus' fawn legs are excellent. Yet others don't work so well ranging from Aslan himself who never comes off as truly there, to talking animals like wolves and foxes which are stand out rather plainly. Once again New Zealand lends itself to an epic backdrop but little use is made of locations short of the final battle on a plain in the midst of a spectacular mountain valley.
More elements work than don't in the film's 140 minute runtime. The kids for example, whilst none of them display exemplary work, all do a more convincing job than the likes of Daniel Radcliffe did in his first go at Harry Potter. Swinton makes for a solid white witch - playing her faux sweetness and ruthless evil with a cold efficiency (not to mention proving surprisingly adept with a sword), Broadbent does a fun job in his brief cameo, and McAvoy brings warmth and charm as Tumnus. Kudos also to Ray Winstone and Dawn French for providing laughs as CG beavers with very English husband and wife personalities. On the flip side a lot of the smaller ancillary roles are of little use such as Rupert Everett's Fox, whilst Liam Neeson seems bored doing his Aslan voiceover and consequently the Lion lacks the booming power and grandeur he should've had.
Action is strong with some impressive sequences such as the final battle which is striking even in this post-Rings environment, a chase across a frozen waterfall that's thawing out, and the opening air raid on London scene. Yet others seem drawn out (the wolves chase) and more often than not a lot of these scenes are filled with some useless preamble to fill in time. At other points there's a little too much "I dub you the knight of..." style scenes which become repetitive. Score is fine for the most part, though there's two uses of strange Bjork-like music early on which doesn't really fit into the story.
The result overall isn't a triumph to be sure, but for the most part succeeds at what it wants to be - a family friendly fantasy movie. Kids (and adults) unfamiliar with the original story will probably not warm to its somewhat ham-fisted approach which can be frustratingly one-dimensional at times. Others grown on the richer textured and more contemporary fantasy epics of late will probably dismiss this as nothing but a pale imitation. Fans of the original though will probably be happy with this effective adaptation of one of the better books in the series (always had a bigger soft spot for Dawn Treader and Silver Chair myself), but its a shame this isn't as magical a journey as it could have been.