By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
In 1949 C.S. Lewis completed "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a fantasy set in World War II-era England and a parallel, mystical universe found just past the overcoats and straight on till the lion king. The book, a tremendous success, ended with these 10 words: "... it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia."
Certainly the employees of Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media, funders of the $180 million film version, hope it works out that way. Lewis, the Oxford don and friend of fellow don J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote seven books under the title "The Chronicles of Narnia." Chronicles being another word for "potential franchise"; if "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" performs well in theaters this month, the producers are set to launch a sequel based on Lewis' second Narnia installment, "Prince Caspian."
Richer, stranger "Narnia" pictures than this disappointing inaugural effort may well be forthcoming. After all, the first two "Harry Potter" movies were blandly corporate affairs. Then came the third one ("Prisoner of Azkaban"), and suddenly the franchise felt like more than a franchise - it felt like a franchise capable of casting a spell as well as raking in the dough.
But too often in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," even with a good cast and a promising first hour, the results recall the subtitle of "The Pirates of Penzance," the old Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: "The Slave of Duty." This project is a slave of duty. It tells Lewis' story, which has its share of sticky and ponderous aspects, in a predictable, visually cautious way. You keep waiting to be transported, yet in cinematic terms, the transportation never arrives.
The premise itself remains a thing of simple, graceful power, even if you're not into the overt Christian aspects of Lewis' allegory. To keep them safe during the London Blitz, the four Pevensie children are sent off by train to the country to live with a dotty old professor (Jim Broadbent) in his sprawling abode. In one of the bedrooms, the youngest, Lucy (Georgie Henley), ventures into a mysterious wardrobe. This is the portal to Narnia, a land stricken by a 100-year spell of winter where Christmas has been forbidden. Soon enough Lucy encounters a faun, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), on orders from the evil White Witch to kidnap any "daughters of Eve" or "sons of Adam" who happen to wander into Narnia.
Director Andrew Adamson (co-director of the first "Shrek") has cast the four kids nicely. The early forays into Narnia are handled with a fetchingly modest sense of wonder. For a long time the movie does not feel like a zillion-dollar attempt at a blockbuster. And as the White Witch, Tilda Swinton keeps her underage co-stars on their toes. She adds a creepily effective sexual undercurrent to her initial entrapment of young Edmund (Skandar Keynes). With her hair looking like the Narnia version of "The Bride of Frankenstein," she lends precisely the eerie gravitas needed.
Here is one actress of whom no director has ever said, "Give me more of that unearthly intensity." During the film's more turgid passages, which accumulate with distressing regularity in the second half, you may find yourself daydreaming about a cage match between Swinton's Witch and Ian McKellen's Gandalf from "The Lord of the Rings." Talk about your epic queens!
The problem with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is this: The closer the many-hands screenplay gets to the Christ-like sufferings and resurrection of Lord Aslan, the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson), the more conflicted the filmmakers' efforts become. In Lewis' book, the climactic battle of good versus evil - Aslan and his followers on one side, the White Witch and her unholy supporters on the other - is dispatched in a few sentences. Here it's a full-on, major-league blowout, though more numbing than vivid. The scene falls hard on the heels of the (pretty painful) passion-of-the-kitty humiliations. You may find yourself eyeing the exit long before the film's one major unintentional laugh: a wholly gratuitous dwarf-killing, via bow and arrow.
The best bits are small ones: Lucy's first entrance into Narnia, or - near the end - a handsome dissolve from a map of the battlefield to the "real" battlefield, complete with swooping, diving griffinlike creatures surveying the action. Swinton's a ripely entertaining nemesis, although a more nimble director might have given her more to do physically as well as dramatically. The film itself doesn't feel ripe so much as fresh-frozen, designed to preserve all the narrative events of the original without bothering enough about the flavor.
"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"
Directed by Andrew Adamson; screenplay by Adamson, Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the book by C.S. Lewis; cinematography by Donald M. McAlpine; production design by Roger Ford; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; edited by Sim Evan-Jones and Jim May; produced by Mark Johnson and Philip Steuer. A Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media release; opens at 12:01 a.m. Friday, Dec. 9. Running time: 2:20. MPAA rating: PG (battle sequences and frightening moments).
Lucy - Georgie Henley
Edmund - Skandar Keynes
Peter - William Moseley
Susan - Anna Popplewell
White Witch - Tilda Swinton
Mr. Tumnus - James McAvoy
Professor Kirke - Jim Broadbent