Neither as clever as Harry Potter nor as epic as Lord of the Rings, but for the children’s story it is, Narnia works.
Four siblings named Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter find themselves bored in the countryside home of an elderly professor, having fled World War II London to avoid the Axis bombings. When the youngest child discovers a portal to a world beyond imagination inside an elaborate wardrobe, her siblings are obviously skeptical. When they all discover how real it is, they inadvertently set in motion a chain of events that will pit the forces of good, led by Aslan (Liam Neeson), against the forces of darkness, led by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), with all of the mystical realm of Narnia hanging in the balance.
What child’s imagination wouldn’t be fueled by finding another world in the back of their closet, a magical place where their very presence is a catalyst for its survival? Well, aside from the kids who’d rather be playing first-person shooter video games, perhaps this is also an adult fantasy of remembered childhood, or at least that’s what Disney is counting on to launch the first of seven “Narnia” books penned by C. S. Lewis. Like the Harry Potter franchise, kids have to grow up fast to be taken seriously in their new world, and like Lord of the Rings, every creature (human or not) of the realm is involved in its ultimate fate.
A lot of things are working against the children in the wardrobe, however. The subject is pretty brutal for a story intent on maintaining its innocence, hence a PG-13 rating. Another is the complete lack of any presence on the part of the four children the story is built around; everything happening in the story is more interesting than they are as actors, and in spite of any prophecy to the contrary, none of the four of them appear even passably capable next to fully-armed and trained centaurs and other mystical creatures. Everything else looks so good that it undermines the simple and innocent plot and makes the children’s parts look like walk on roles awarded in a sugary cereal box contest. The fact that “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is a small book padded into a feature-length film in no way narrows the scope of the film’s ambition, either, a lot for four kids to live up to to begin with.
Ambitious or not, the movie is full of entertaining stuff to watch. One shocking revelation is that every creature seems to talk, and even with knowing that fact, it’s still jaw-dropping to watch every time it happens again, implemented with a top-notch blend of CGI and practical effects. The music is appropriately haunting, conveying a sense of mystery and wonder that the children were either incapable of reflecting themselves or simply not encouraged to do. As a land in the grip of a 100-year winter, Narnia is breathtaking to behold, but as the snow melts away, so does some of its wonder.
As introduced in the film, Narnia also doesn’t seem very large, certainly not large enough realistically to support or produce the items it has (armor, tents, hardbound books, etc). Where are the cities? Where are the factories? Where is all the toast coming from? With the level of realism the film sets out to achieve, what’s the point of a world of imagination that only works on imagination? True, this is nitpicking and will likely be addressed if the Chronicles of Narnia continue, but for all the wonder that a fantasy film like Narnia is advertising, any sequels will certainly have to tighten the reigns once the effect of “battle rhinos” vs. minotaurs wears off and the kids really have to shoulder the story.
(a two and a half skull recommendation out of four)