Chronicles of Narnia, The – The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Today marks not only the opening of one of the most highly anticipated films this season, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” but also the potential for Disney and Walden Media to capitalize on its success by building a franchise of their own. And although books-to-movies do not often live up to expectations, I’d say they have a pretty good chance of creating a following with this one. Based on the popular children’s book series by C.S. Lewis, “Narnia” follows the unexpected adventures of the four Pevensie children: Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. Forced to flee their home during World War II in London, they are sent to the country home of an old professor where they discover an enchanted wardrobe. The wardrobe leads them to Narnia – a land frozen in eternal winter and enslaved by an evil White Witch. It is a strange, mysterious world where animals talk and mythological creatures roam free. Aided by the hopeful force of all things good, Aslan the Lion, the children learn of a famed prophecy involving them in a great battle to free Narnia from the Witch’s glacial enslavement for good.

What appears to have been a project years in the making, the man responsible for bringing a live-action Narnia to the big screen is director Andrew Adamson (the creative mastermind behind “Shrek,” “Shrek 2,” and the upcoming “Shrek 3”). For Adamson, a longtime fan of the book series, the biggest obstacle he faced in the development of the story itself was remaining true to Lewis’ original novel. Given estimates of the impressive worldwide readership, the fan clubs, cult-followings and dedicated internet sites, it is undoubtedly a daunting task. Luckily for us, the eager book and movie lovers we are, Adamson enlisted the help of an excellent team and even included the supervision of C.S. Lewis’ stepson. It is safe to say he does not disappoint.

Adamson admits that one of the major challenges early on, was in finding the right actors for the Pevensie family. He wanted a story centered on the children and the idea and importance of family. Check. One of the major successes of the film are the strong performances of the young actors: William Moseley is the noble head-of-the-family Peter, Anna Popplewell is the strong, yet subtle Susan, Skandar Keynes is the misunderstood troublemaker Edmund, and the charming, scene-stealing newcomer Georgie Henley is wide-eyed, innocent Lucy. Henley is the most impressive of the four. Her expressions and emotions are so raw and believable, she gave me chills – particularly her endearing scenes with James Mcavoy, who plays the kind and spirited Mr. Tumnus. The two of them help shine light on the more tender, heartfelt side of the story. Moseley and Popplewell are perfect as the eldest siblings and Keynes shows some major potential with his portrayal of the pre-pubescent, unknowingly traitorous Edmund. Of course you can’t forget the brilliant Tilda Swinton (“Constantine,” “Orlando”) who, as the White Witch is so powerfully chilling, and viciously evil, you’ll cheer for her defeat.

Other performances worth mentioning are those of the animals, rather, the actors who voice them, that is. Ray Winstone and Dawn French tackle the courageous, yet comical Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Rupert Everett brings life to the sly Mr. Fox, and Academy Award – nominated great Liam Neeson, is Narnia’s noble ruler, Aslan the Lion.

Visually, the film is superb. Adamson, relying heavily on his extensive effects background (and what have to be some friends in high places), was able to convince five different effects houses to work on this project. Yes, you read that correctly, five. Rhythm & Hues Studios, Richard Taylor’s WETA Workshop, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and K.N.B. EFX Group, Inc. all contributed creatures, props and action sequences to the film. Using a technique called Photo Real, Adamson and crew have generated animals so realistic and life-like you’ll hardly be able to tell the difference between the animated animals and the live ones – of which there are both. A particularly impressive sequence is the battle scene, for which several thousand creatures were created using the Massive software, made famous by the “Lord of the Rings” films.

Speaking of the “Rings” trilogy, there is no doubt comparisons will be made: Much of the film was shot in New Zealand, Adamson is a native New Zealander; Tolkein and Lewis were good friends, Peter Jackson and Andrew Adamson coincidentally, are good friends; “Rings” has epic battles and lots of creatures, “Narnia” has a battle with lots of creatures, etc. Adamson and company will tell you that the “Lord of the Rings” films paved the way for “Narnia.” He says they helped him do what he wanted to do (And what he’s done, frankly, will impress even the geekiest of effects geeks.) Look for visual effects supervisor and multiple academy award winner Dean Wright (“Titanic,” “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) to be a major contender for another gold statue come February. But back to the whole comparison issue – visual effects and location set aside – one film takes place in a dark, decayed ancient land and the other is set in a newer, less-defeated, more hopeful world- there’s not even any bloodshed. They are two completely different stories.

Regarding the religious undertones of the story, there is a sacrificial scene in which Aslan is seized and bound to a stone table, but had I not been alerted of this prior to seeing the film, I wouldn’t have paid any extra attention to it. Again, Adamson set out to make a film that was true to Lewis’ original work, and that scene is described in the book, in detail. Perhaps if you’re looking for meaning and religious allegory you will find it but again, I found nothing even remotely overt.

All things considered, this film is very good. It is true to Lewis’ original story, which will delight fans and make new ones, the effects are outstanding and the acting is excellent. Whether you’re a “Narnian” or not, if you like classic tales with action, adventure, and a little heart you will enjoy this film.

Regarding the potential for that elusive, moneymaking dream of a film franchiser Depending on box office numbers… look for Disney to greenlight a sequel before the New Year.

Rating: A