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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // November 9, 2010
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Nick Hartel | posted December 28, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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THE PROGRAM

I'll fully disclose up front I'm not a fan of C.S. Lewis' famous series of novels. I can vaguely recall reading the first book, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" many years ago in school. I also recall seeing a stage production of the same novel in conjunction with our in-class reading, and wasn't that enraptured by it. It took the Disney adaptation of the first book a few years back to finally get me to take another look at the series, and I found it to be an enjoyable, but imperfect fantasy tale. Now, in an obvious marketing move to tie-in with the release of the third, live-action film, the BBC has seen fit to release their late 80s to early 90s miniseries adaptation of the first four novels.

Aired in the form of three, six episode miniseries, running around 30-minutes an episode, the series condensed the second two novels together, while giving the first and the fourth nearly three hours each to bring Lewis' world of Narnia to life. Sadly, time has not been kind to these adaptations, which were not that great to begin with.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The first adaptation in the set, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is the most tedious and intolerable. An obvious product of its time, the adaptation would likely be far more easy to digest in the format it was aired in, that is, one episode a week, for six weeks. Having to take in three hours of tedium, aimed at a very small target audience, was no easy task.

It's very important to note that the production is heavily aimed at a small age range. Very deliberate in it's storytelling method, anyone over the age of eight is going to be bored or annoyed at how simplistically and arduously the tale of the Pevensie children's voyage into a magical land through the mysterious wardrobe in the English manor they were sent to reside in at the height of World War II. The series takes absolutely no time in getting Lucy to enter and spends nearly the entirety of the first episode with her and the faun, Mr. Tumnus relating generally dull expository information about the land of Narnia. It's a pace and format that defines the majority of the first series.

Being a dialogue heavy production, the large burden of entertainment falls on the acting department, and the cast simply doesn't cut it. At their best, some performers are merely adequate (Jeffrey S. Perry is probably the best, as Mr. Tumnus), while at their worst, which most of the children are, amateurish and uneven are apt adjectives. It's a flaw that the youngest viewers will overlook, but everyone else will either find grating or laughable. Speaking of laughable, Barbara Kellerman delivers one of the most unintentional funny performances I've ever seen in a BBC production. A far cry from Tilda Swinton's genuinely creepy and effective portrayal in the Disney production, Kellerman sells every line with as much eye movement as one would expect from the excited proprietor of a place that is "just like a mini-mall." In the fifth and sixth episode, when the action does finally to ramp up, Kellerman has ensured she's gone so over-the-top, that Lincoln Hawks would be jealous.

The campy acting has a particularly negative effect during one of the most crucial scenes in the story, one involving Aslan and the White Witch. Fans will know what I'm talking about, but those unfamiliar, this is a huge spoiler. Aslan, portrayed in the series by a more than decent puppet, conveys the most emotion in the series (which really speaks volumes for the human actors), however, Kellerman is there stinking things up. To make matters worse, the creators overuse, the hand-drawn animated characters and the entire sequence is a nightmarish combination of Benny Hill and the Holy Bible. The sequence is honestly the final straw and the series limps into the final episode.

The only truly redeeming quality of the adaptation lies in the genuinely charming attempt at building the world of Narnia from a meager, television budget. The interior scenes all have that BBC, studio feel, but the exteriors do feel far more remote than expected. Many detractors would poke fun at the live actors in somewhat goofy animal costumes, but for my money, the actors in giant beaver costumes are much more engaging and less distracting than the slightly off CGI creations of the live-action films. Traditional hand-drawn animation pops up for some more, otherworldly animals and is the only real distracting element.

Perhaps I'm a little too harsh, given the obvious target audience, but the flaws in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" are too obvious to ignore. With more than half the production spent on arduous, formulaic exposition, only to lead to a rather dismal finale, this production doesn't have a lot to offer. It's a simple good vs. evil tale, stretched thin and does Lewis' original world no favors. If your kids are huge Narnia fans, give it a rent; if merely casual, stick with the Disney versions first.
RATING: 1.5/5.0
REPLAY: 1.0/5.0

Prince Caspian/Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The second miniseries, released a year after "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," "Prince Caspian" is only given, two, thirty-minute episodes to tell its story, while "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" gets the remaining four. This is a poor move on the BBC's part, as the story is obviously heavily abridged and it doesn't feel like this entry in the series is that faithful to Lewis' novels. That said, some things have improved slightly, most welcomed, the improvement in acting.

Barbara Kellerman is thankfully gone and so are her goofy shenanigans, turning the former adaptation into fodder fit for Mike and the Bots. Jean Marc Perret is far superior to any of the child actors portraying the Pevensie children, and is a generally convincing young man full of wonder, as the titular prince. Additionally, his narrative is actually interesting, with viewers being drawn into a world where stories of Aslan and the defeat of the White Witch are outlawed. The threat upon Caspian's life by his evil uncle Miraz, the King, is simply stated, free of the goofy evilness of the White Witch.

The "Prince Caspian" portion of the series is essentially exposition setting up the greater exploits that unfold in "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and while it's regrettable that one book was crammed in one-third the space of the previous book, it was likely a move for the better, given the droll pace of its predecessor. The children do return and are quickly brought up to speed on the history of Narnia that has occurred in their absence. Here, rather than fully fleshed out characters, they are simple proxies for the audience, who likely also have questions why things have become so dreary.

The brief adaptation concludes with a battle that is much more exciting than the poor excuse for a clash of good and evil in the previous series, but the low budget still holds things back and some hokey effects are far too underdeveloped. All in all, "Prince Caspian" is a much more enjoyable outing and provides a reasonably solid introduction to the character of Caspian who plays a big role in the remaining four episodes of the series, covering "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."

"The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is a basic adventure story bringing back Edmund and Lucy (the other two children are deemed to old to return to Narnia by Aslan himself) as well as their smarmy brat of a cousin, Eustace Scrubb. It's a very medieval looking adaptation and the few costumed characters, particularly Reepicheep a warrior mouse played by the go two for small costumed characters of the 80s and 90s, Warwick Davis. I still prefer this obviously low budget approach, to the hand-drawn animation of the previous series or iffy CGI that might have been used today. Additionally, with two of the Pevenise children gone, the cringe worthy acting is dialed back a great degree and Simon West as King Caspian is able to sufficiently carry the pace of the series.

The dual adaptation is a significant step up from the very disappointing "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and while the low budget and very basic approach to plotting and dialogue may cause some eye rolling, I feel children are much more likely to have their attentions held steadily here. As I previously stated, I'm not familiar with Lewis' source material, but I find it a safe bet to say these adaptations are very loosely faithful. Purists will once again want to steer clear, but those looking for an average children's adventure should give it a look.
RATING: 2.5/5.0
REPLAY: 2.0/5.0

The Silver Chair

Mercifully and thankfully, this collection ends on a rather pleasant high note. "The Silver Chair" brings back Eustace Scrub, who underwent a well-handled character change in "Voyage of the Dawn Treader." Along with Eustace is his friend Jill Pole, who soon finds out Narnia is not what Eustace had bragged about. The exposition is wisely relegated to the first episode of the series, with Aslan explaining that Narnia's heir to the throne is missing and that Jill must help Eustace find the lost price by following three, specific signs. Before long, the initially separated duo are reunited and off on an adventure beginning with help from some giant owls.

"The Silver Chair" has a very solid handle on action and storytelling, shying away from the previous series' habits of having characters sit around for an entire episode before punctuating the final moments with something moderately exciting. Like any good adventure quest, our heroes talk along the way and their journey takes them across a wide variety of locales, ranging from a land of giants, to a finale in a mysterious dark underworld inhabited by eerie Earthmen.

However, the children are not own their own and viewers are rewarded by the presence of Tom Baker as their companion, the continually depressed marshwiggle, Puddlegum. Baker is as great as one would expect from the man responsible for leaving a lasting impact on the world as the Fourth Doctor. He serves a dual purpose for our pair of heroes, acting on a base level as a guide across the land, explaining simple facts as to not leave Eustace and Jill, as well as the viewers in the dark. Puddlegum's continually dour attitude also forces our characters to take charge and the scene where Eustace and Jill both tell him to quit his whining is a defining character moment that the previous series' lacked.

The one sour note comes in the very exciting finale involving the Queen of the Deep Realm, played by everyone's favorite over actor from the first series, Barbara Kellerman. While Kellerman is notably restrained in "The Silver Chair" she still takes a "loud" and "eye-heavy" approach to acting. It's as if she (or the director) doesn't feel children can identify a more restrained evil character, and that the villain must be in your face at all times. However, given the more restrained nature of previous villains, especially in the last series, the fault likely lies on Kellerman. Lightening that disappointment is her henchman, the Silver Knight, who plays a large role in the final act, and is a more convincing portrait of menace.

"The Silver Chair" is not a perfect adventure story, but a much more satisfying experience than the previous series.' Our characters' quest is much better defined and the emotional growth they undergo is far more believable. Tom Baker is a truly welcome breath of fresh air and he alone elevates this to a program that older viewers can watch and find some enjoyment in. Considering this is the only filmed adaptation of the fourth book, it will likely be of great interest to fans, and while again, I can't speak to it's faithfulness to the source material, I think it should be a satisfying experience.
RATING: 3.5/5.0
REPLAY: 2.5/5.0





THE DVD

The Video

The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe

The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is an ugly affair, despite only being 22-years old. Featuring minimal detail at best, color levels are inconsistent and as a whole, the transfer appears to be an obvious mediocre video transfer.
VIDEO RATING: 2.0/5.0

Prince Caspian/Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer, like "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," "Prince Caspian" suffers from the same technical difficulties consistent with a video transfer. Colors are as good as one could hope, while detail is once again sparse. A minor bit of microphony is present, but not as bad as it could be.
VIDEO RATING: 2.0/5.0

The Silver Chair

The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is on par with the other two programs. Colors are passable, while detail is as sharp as one could hope from a video transfer that brings a few artifacts over most notably minor microphony.
VIDEO RATING: 2.0/5.0

The Audio

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The English mono soundtrack is generally clear, track, reproducing all dialogue efficiently and effectively. Some minor distortion occurs with the shrillest effects, but this is a minor issue. English subtitles are included.
AUDIO RATING: 2.5/5.0

Prince Caspian/Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The English mono soundtrack is generally clear, track, reproducing all dialogue efficiently and effectively. Some minor distortion occurs with the shrillest effects, but this is a minor issue. English subtitles are included.
AUDIO RATING: 2.5/5.0

The Silver Chair

The English mono soundtrack is generally clear, track, reproducing all dialogue efficiently and effectively. Some minor distortion occurs with the shrillest effects, but this is a minor issue. English subtitles are included.
AUDIO RATING: 2.5/5.0

The Extras

On the first three discs, a simple photo gallery of each series is present. The heart of the extras lies on the fourth bonus disc. The 30-minute documentary "Past Watchful Dragons" covers the first series and its connection to the Lewis novel. Two brief vintage interviews are accompanied by a 2003 reunion interview with the main cast of children. Last but not least are brief behind-the-scenes featurettes covering some production design and a collection of outtakes.

Final Thoughts

A decidedly mixed, the BBC production of "The Chronicles of Narnia" only contains one series worth a purchase, the final, genuinely fun adaptation of "The Silver Chair." I feel only diehard fans might find something in the abridged combination of "Prince Caspian" and "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," while "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is, bluntly, a failure. Rent It.

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