Arriving on Blu-ray just a few short days before Prince Caspian makes its bow in theaters is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of the novels penned by C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia series.
The movie opens as England is ensnared in the chaos of World War II. The cities are under such savage attack that they're hardly any place for young children, and brothers and sisters Peter (William Moseley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) are shuttled off to a professor's remote mansion in the rolling British countryside until the war has ended. While seeking out the perfect hiding place in the labyrinthine mansion, Lucy stumbles upon a wardrobe that serves as a gateway to another world entirely. It's in this snowy, wintery land that she meets Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a charming faun who gradually reveals to Lucy that humans -- even ones as young and precocious as herself -- are feared by the powerful in the kingdom of Narnia.
Lucy's brothers and stuffy sister shrug off her stories about Narnia as some sort of childhood fantasy, but a misplaced cricket ball eventually sends all four of them piling into the wardrobe and quickly tumbling into a faceful of snow. Lucy excitedly drags them all over to Mr. Tumnus' place in search of tea and toast, but it's there that they realize just how cruel a place Narnia can be. A pair of chatty, happily married beavers (voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) fill them in on why Lucy's cloven-footed pal has been arrested for high treason. The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) seized control of Narnia a century earlier, blanketing every square inch of the once-pastoral kingdom in ice and snow. The true king of Narnia -- the regal lion Aslan (Liam Neeson) -- has returned, but only the prophecized arrival of two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve can bring an end to the White Witch's reign of terror. Overcoming the vicious despot and her hordes of monsters is a daunting task, especially for such young children, but it's a responsibility they can't ignore, especially when Edmund's greed and thoughtlessness land him in the clutches of the White Witch.
Despite a set of trailers that seemed to pitch it more as an heir to Lord of the Rings' throne, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a wide-eyed fairy tale meant to capture the imagination of young viewers. This is a movie, after all, that features Father Christmas in a supporting role doling out weapons and assorted mystical power-ups, and one betrayal that drives much of the plot is sparked by a hunger for sugary Turkish Delight. What this adaptation does so well is take those sorts of elements and weave them into a story that doesn't expressly pander to a younger crowd. It's a family movie in...well, as true a sense as a film climaxing with a bloodless but still brutal assault with thousands upon thousands of mythical creatures can be.
While nothing about the core premise of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is especially groundbreaking in the here and now, the script is tightly written. Even with a runtime approaching two and a half hours in length, the pacing tears along at a steady enough clip that it doesn't feel nearly that long. Really, the movie seems as if it could've stood to have been drawn out a bit more. There's not much in the way of on-screen bonding between the children and the Narnians; they just immediately take to one another, and with as little time as the kids spend with Aslan, their instant emotional attachment and one of the harrowing decisions he makes don't carry quite the impact they might have had otherwise. There are moments that do resonate, such as a noble sacrifice that's almost painful to watch even for those who know how things turn out in the end, and the silent sting of betrayal when Mr. Tumnus finds out why he's locked in shackles hits like a slug in the gut too. I appreciate the fact that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe doesn't overplay those darker moments, letting the material unfold instead of relying on syrupy strings or long, weepy shots of the cast.
It's kind of interesting to see how this was the first movie for so many of the young actors in the lead. Its four stars capture that childlike sense of wonder, and even though their characters aren't the least bit deep or richly drawn, they're still instantly convincing as brothers and sisters and are readily able to shoulder the weight of the material. The most memorable turn in the movie, though, is by Tilda Swinton. Hers is a much more restrained White Witch, and the way she coldly bottles that anger and ferocity makes for a much more menacing force than the usual scenery-gnawing villain.
It's unavoidable to delve into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at any length without touching on the Christian allegories that C.S. Lewis had sprinkled throughout the original novel. Its nods to the New Testament are still present in this adaptation, although it's rarely heavy-handed. They're there if you know to keep an eye out, but I didn't feel as if I was being preached to by gabby CGI critters. Something rings less true about the way the movie tries to paint the inevitability of war, though. In the opening sequence set against the backdrop of WWII, the conflict is bleak, brutal, and engulfs everything in sight. In the climax in Narnia, the sprawling battle is played for heroic thrills with ultimately few consequences. It's a sequence that's stunning to watch unfold but doesn't hold up as well once the end credits have finished their upward crawl and I'm left with more of a chance to mull over things. Even though the battle isn't graphic -- the camera always takes care to cut away before a drop of blood can be spilled -- it still might be a bit much for especially young viewers. Those going in expecting more in the way of swords and sorcery may be disappointed that the climax makes up the bulk of that; don't go in expecting a Lord of the Rings redux because that's not the sort of movie this is.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a light, breezy adventure with gorgeous visuals and charm to spare, and it's certainly above average for the recent wave of family-friendly fantasy films. Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek; Shrek 2) strikes a wonderful balance of delivering a message without losing sight of the fact that this is a movie while he's doing it. Admittedly, though, it's not the sort of fantasy I'd make it a point to watch year after year, and it doesn't spark that same sort of giddiness that the best family movies of recent memory have. Still, I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe more than enough to recommend it, I'm definitely still onboard for Prince Caspian, and it's greatly appreciated to see that Disney went to the lengths they have to make for such an exceptional release on Blu-ray. Recommended for those stepping into Narnia for the first time; Highly Recommended to established fans of the film.
Video: No studio has consistently provided the sorts of dazzling high definition presentations that Disney has time and again, and as expected, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. Its stylized palette in particular is immediately striking. The movie opens to more subdued, overcast hues in the midst of the chaos of the second World War, and the blankets of white and the eye-popping turquoise of the Great River that follow during the opening legs of the journey in Narnia look outstanding on Blu-ray. The hues become more lush and vivid once the frozen wasteland defrosts. Depth and dimensionality are both remarkable, giving the film that three-dimensional, almost tactile sort of pop, and the smooth gradients in the lighting sparkle in high definition. The extraordinary level of detail holds strong no matter how far back the camera leaps, and a faint trace of film grain remains intact to give the scope image just a bit of texture. There isn't a single flaw to be spotted in the source material, and the healthy bitrate of the AVC encode keeps the video free of any compression artifacts. Just a gorgeous, gorgeous release.
Audio: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe's 5.1 PCM audio is also exceptional, standing strong as one of the best soundtracks the format has to offer. The sound design is particularly immersive, playing an integral role in realizing this vision of C.S. Lewis' fantasy world. This is the sort of mix that deftly uses each and every channel at its fingertips: following the clopping of Mr. Tumnus' hooves as they clatter off-screen from one channel to the next, the persistent crunch and light crackle of ice and snow, both in the bitter cold of the frozen forest as well as inside the White Witch's frigid castle, and, of course, the climactic epic battle pitting armies of untold thousands of mythical and magical creatures against one another. The multichannel setup adds a strong sense of atmosphere even to quieter, more subdued scenes, and the fidelity remains flawless throughout, boasting detail and clarity that's rarely been matched on Blu-ray. The dynamic range is expansive, effortlessly rendering crystalline highs and devastatingly thunderous lows. Dialogue is reproduced cleanly and clearly throughout, never once overwhelmed even in the film's most dizzyingly aggressive sequences, and a collapsing dam of ice and Aslan's mighty roar are just a couple of the effects bolstered by a colossal low-frequency kick. This is easily a reference quality soundtrack.
An extensive selection of other tracks and subtitle streams have also been provided. Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are offered in English, Quebecois-French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, and Korean, alongside subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, and Chinese.
Extras: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe roars onto Blu-ray with a sprawling special edition release, spreading its hours upon hours of extras across two discs. It's a bit disappointing that the overwhelming majority of them aren't in high definition, but the quality and sheer volume of material are outstanding by any measure.
Both of the disc's audio commentaries feature director Andrew Adamson. In the first, he's joined by producer Mark Johnson and, by telephone, production designer Roger Ford. This is an intensely technical discussion, delving into the mindset behind shooting the movie more or less in-sequence, the appeal of striking a digital intermediate in the days before that became standard practice, cleverly side-stepping wagging wolves' tails and Kiwi laws forbidding reindeer, every conceivable angle about the construction and backstory behind the wardrobe, and taking particular care in noting where fragments of certain shots were filmed across the globe. Its focus is on the nuts and bolts of putting together a movie with such an enormous scope and fairly young children in the lead, but these three filmmakers are so personable that the commentary never once feels dry or dull. Their pride and enthusiasm for the film really shines through in such comments as how Adamson had to rely on his imagination since Lewis didn't spell out every last detail in the novel and how one of the actors' parents was so convinced by the CG beasties that he thought his daughter had been put in real danger during production.
All four of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe's young stars also have a chance to pile into the recording booth with Adamson, and it's a really cheery, upbeat, sugar rush of an audio commentary. This is a really fun listen, particularly since Georgie Henley sounds like she'd guzzled a couple barrel drums of Red Bull before sitting down in front of the mic. They give a pretty strong sense of what the tone on the set was like, from diving into such a massive film as inexperienced young actors to wolfing down sardines, a few dozen pieces of Turkish delight, and even a pencil...kinda. Some of the highlights include mouse-induced terror, steam billowing out of stuntmens' outfits after yanking off their minotaur masks, some of their favorite moments that were snipped out, how outtakes were cleverly repurposed and incorporated into the final cut, and a great, simple story about how Rupert Everett wound up voicing a computer-generated fox.
The 'fun facts' subtitle track opens with a brief spoken introduction by Douglas Gresham, a producer on the film as well as C.S. Lewis' stepson. The track touches on Lewis' life before and after penning the first of his Narnia novels, how The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe fits into the timeline established across the other six books in the series, and points out some of the Biblical, mythological, and historical nods that Lewis had taken care to incorporate into the book. These facts appears very infrequently throughout the movie's nearly two and a half hour runtime, unfortunately, and they're really better paired with one of the commentaries than viewed on their own.
Also included on the first disc is a four and a half minute blooper reel. It's pretty standard stuff, mostly -- blowing lines, stumbling around on the set, and fumbling with props -- but it's the first glimpse Narnia serves up of the movie before any of the visual effects had crept in, and seeing one of the young actors accidentally winding up locked in the wardrobe got a laugh. A steady stream of trailers and assorted plugs round out the extras on disc one.
"Battle for Narnia", the first of the extras on disc two, is exclusive to this Blu-ray release. It's essentially a card battle game, pitting the player against some of the nasty creatures that skulk around Narnia. The arsenal consists of a weak but reliable fast attack, a more easily dodged but incredibly damaging power attack, and a defensive move. Players can choose from two different characters and can recruit help along the way, and as the earlier campaigns are completed, more continue to be unlocked. It's a slick interface and a pretty well-thought-out game, although even on a PlayStation 3, the process of selecting a move and waiting for everything to follow through is a bit slower than I would've liked. I did enjoy my brief time with this more than the bulk of the games I've played on other Blu-ray discs, and it's always nice to see extras that take advantage of some of the format's muscle power.
The game is rendered in full 1080p, as are three of the disc's other extras. "Creatures of the World" (15 min.) uses a mix of character art, light animation, excerpts from Lewis' novels, and narration to further flesh out a dozen of the characters and beasts featured throughout The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. "Explore Narnia" is an interactive map that offers viewers a three-dimensional tour of the White Witch's castle, the Western boundary of The Lantern Waste, the capitol city of Cair Paravel that awaits the rightful rulers of Narnia, the battlefield where the film's climax is staged, and the sacrificial Stone Table. The last of the high definition extras is "From One Man's Mind", a three and a half minute biography of C.S. Lewis. This combination of narration and high-res scans of archival photographs follows Lewis from his deeply imaginative childhood through his military career to his earliest writings to, of course, the creation of his legendary fantasy series.
The rest of the featurettes -- nearly three and a half hours' worth -- are presented in standard definition and letterboxed in non-anamorphic widescreen. "Chronicles of a Director" (38 min.) isn't exactly the video diary the menu promises, although there is a tremendous amount of behind the scenes footage scattered throughout. It's really about Andrew Adamson's vision for this adaptation of a book he's deeply loved for decades. It's a very comprehensive piece, starting with his background in visual effects along with a runthrough how he took the reins as director. I really enjoyed hearing how unconventional his preparation was, especially how he was more interested in adapting his memories of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe rather than poring over each individual page. This featurette gives a brief overview of virtually everything: the extensive casting process, the creature design, the meticulously carved appearance of the wardrobe, fabricating the weaponry of Narnia, the mix of digital, prosthetic, and animatronic effects, filming in New Zealand, the sheer enormity of this project, and Adamson's desire to make the set an invitingly nice place for his young cast.
The remaining featurettes in large part delve in more detail into what "Chronicles of a Director" only briefly touches on. "The Children's Magical Journey" (27 min.) is, of course, anchored around the movie's four young stars. They each talk enthusiastically about their auditions, the familial vibe on the set and their fast friendship with Adamson, costuming, and a little song and dance they'd whip out whenever the director would shout to check the gate.
"Cinematic Storytellers" (55 min.) aims its spotlight at several of the key teams that toiled away behind the scenes. Richard Taylor from the Weta Workshop focuses on the thought and craftsmanship behind all of the props and weaponry. Howard Berger -- the "B" in KNB -- shifts his emphasis toward bringing Narnia's characters to life, discussing the hectic pace of the shoot and the challenges of dealing with elaborate make-up effects on such a gigantic scale. Most of the other participants clarify exactly what their role is in the movie and point out some of the specific challenges they had to overcome, including costume designer Isis Mussenden, production designer Roger Ford, and producer Mark Johnson. The segment with composer Harry Gregson-Williams also offers a short peek at the recording of the orchestral score, director of photography Don McAlpine describes how he tried to steer clear of a distractingly "cinematic" look for the film, and Sim Evan-Jones even mentions how his intimate connection to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe extends beyond just editing.
Another hour long collection of short featurettes explores how the characters and creatures throughout Narnia were brought to life, such as the elaborate mounts and rigs behind the centaurs and animatronic minotaur headpieces that left the stuntmen underneath completely unable to see. There's a tremendous amount of color behind "Creating Creatures" that makes it a blast to watch: how computer-generated and flesh-and-blood wolves were seamlessly blended together (sometimes as part of the same animal), the actor behind Ginarrbrik is the smallest working stuntman in the industry, we see the application of goblin make-up and prosthetics from start to finish, there's a peek at the voicework behind Mister and Missus Beaver, along with looks at the breakneck pace behind the satyr assembly line and how the fast, violent ankle-slicers were crafted in the digital domain. The more richly drawn characters of the bunch get the lion's share of attention, no pun intended, including the more than five million hairs on Aslan's digital model, how Mr. Tumnus' cloven clopping around was captured live on the set, and an incredibly detailed discussion of the White Witch's makeup and wardrobe that adapted to fit the character's ever-changing environment and state of mind.
Finally, "Anatomy of a Scene" spends nineteen minutes delving in-depth into how two key scenes were executed. The featurette first turns its attention to the melting river, following from production on an elaborate set that took an hour and a half to reset after each take all the way through to the digital effects work to outputting the finished composite on film. "Anatomy of a Scene" also explores the climactic battle between the armies of Aslan and the White Witch: the scale of the sequence, the hordes of stuntmen and extras in green tights, helicopters soaring overhead, the shooting of empty plates for the effects work, and animating thousands of otherworldly soldiers in the computer.
This Blu-ray release only includes the theatrical cut of the movie, and it loses several of the extras from the four disc DVD release, including the "Legends in Time" timeline, the "C.S. Lewis: Dreamer of Narnia" documentary, the "Art of Narnia" gallery, and the feature-length "Visualizing The Lion, the Witch, And the Wardrobe: The Complete Production Experience".
Conclusion: Even if The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe didn't spark that same sort of frothing-at-the-mouth fanaticism as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, its stunning visuals, charming cast, and childlike sense of awe and wonder still won me over. The movie looks and sounds phenomenal on Blu-ray, and this two-disc set is one of the most lavish special editions on the format to date.
The usual image disclaimer: the photos scattered around this review are promotional stills and don't necessarily represent the presentation on this Blu-ray disc.