Recently rapped about (in Saturday Night Live's "Lazy Sunday" sketch, which resulted in the most press the show has gotten in as long as one can remember), "The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is the latest (and biggest) adaptation of the immensely popular novel by C.S. Lewis. Given the success of this first entry in the series, it's no surprise that the rest of the series is on its way.
As the film begins, Susan Pevensie (Anna Popplewell) and siblings Peter (William Moseley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) are being evacuated from London by train as World War II rages on. They're headed out to the country, where a new home with an old professor (Jim Broadbent) and his mean-spirited housekeeper. Not long after the bunch get settled in as best they can, they play hide-and-seek in the old house. Lucy finds what appears to be the perfect hiding spot in an old wardrobe, but when she closes the door, she finds herself transported to the world of Narnia (it's generally an unfair advantage when you're playing hide-and-seek and the one you're seeking is in another world - just saying.)
Lucy meets one of the inhabitants of Narnia and learns from half-man/half-fawn Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) that the land is trapped in a constant state of Winter by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton, in an enjoyably sleek, subtle performance.) Although her fellow siblings don't exactly take well to what Lucy has to say about what she's seen, it's not long before all of them end up going through the wardrobe themselves and believing in Narnia once they find themselves setting foot in it.
Helped by a pair of chatty beavers, the kids find out that the lion king messiah Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) is pulling together the remaining creatures of the land to fight against the White Witch and her massive armies. However, one of their own has fallen under the spell of the White Witch. This all leads up to a major battle between the two sides, with the fate of Narnia in the balance.
"Narnia" viewers shouldn't expect an epic along the lines of the "Lord of the Rings" pictures, and the feature runs less time than the average "Harry Potter" movie. Still, the film certainly offers viewers a compelling adventure, as director Andrew Adamson (director of the "Shrek" movies - this is his first live-action effort) has pulled the big-budget flick together quite nicely. The visual effects are not as remarkable as some other recent blockbusters, but - for example - I certainly think Aslan looks better than he did in the early previews for the movie.
The acting is also generally good, with Henley being the strongest of the child actors. On the other hand, the three other child actors offer just decent performances, and the fact that they don't fare as well does take bit of impact away from the movie. Swinton's really the best thing about the film, as her witch is genuinely menacing and fascinating to watch. In terms of pacing, I didn't feel the flick dragged very much at all, as the two hours and change felt like just that. Some flaws aside, I felt that "Narnia" was a perfectly enjoyable adventure flick that provided a fine mixture of story and visual effects.
Note: The movie is rated PG, but I felt that some scenes in the film did start to push the boundaries of the rating. Older children will probably be fine with it, but the youngest children may find some scenes upsetting.
VIDEO: "The Chronicles of Narnia" is presented by Disney in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on the collector's edition (the regular edition comes in widescreen and cropped pan & scan flavors.) The widescreen presentation looks exceptional in most regards. Sharpness and detail are mostly excellent, as the image remained crisp and well-defined throughout the majority, save for a few wide shots here-and-there.
The presentation did show a couple of slight hints of edge enhancement, but looked otherwise crisp and clean, with no pixelation, print flaws or other concerns. Colors looked bold and beautiful, with very nice saturation and no smearing.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. The film's audio is wonderfully aggressive and enveloping when it needs to be as the picture starts ramping up the adventure in the second half. Surrounds kick in frequently to reinforce the film's majestic score and the various sound effects (see the frozen lake chase, for example). Audio quality was dynamic and exciting, as the soundtrack offered punchy sound effects, a rich-sounding score and crisp dialogue. The DTS presentation did win out over the Dolby Digital presentation, as it offered somewhat deeper, tighter bass and seemed a bit more seamless then the Dolby Digital edition.
EXTRAS: Director Andrew Adamson and the four main child actors offer one of the DVD's two audio commentaries. The children excitedly share stories about working on the production and occasionally chatter over one another to get out their discussion of the events of that particular day of production. Additionally, they question the director regarding how some of the scenes in the film were accomplished.
The second commentary comes from Adamson, along with production designer Roger Ford and producer Mark Johnson. Ford is on the phone during the commentary. The three provide an enjoyable discussion of the behind-the-scenes work done on each scene, chatting about the look of the picture, small details, shooting in various sets and locations and the differences between the original book and the movie.
Although it may not strike some as a "blooper" kind of movie, we get a few minutes of bloopers on the first disc, some of which are actually quite funny. Additionally, co-producer Douglas Gresham (stepson of C.S. Lewis) offers some fun facts about the movie in an optional "pop-up" trivia track.
The second disc opens with the 37-minute "Chronicles of a Director", which details how Adamson came aboard and his thoughts on the story, the casting, working with the actors and the challenges of his first live action project. The piece is a little fluffy at times, but it's mostly an enjoyable - if not hugely in-depth - "making of". "Children of Narnia" is a 26-minute look at working with the child actors in the film.
We also get the multi-part "Evolution of an Epic", which offers: "From One Man's Mind" (a look at author C.S. Lewis), "Cinematic Storytellers" (short pieces on the film's producer, composer, editor, cinematographer, production designer, costume director and heads of the KNB and Weta workshops), "Creating Creatures" and "Anatomy of a Scene: The Melting River."
"Creatures of the World" offers short animated bios of the creatures seen in the movie. "Explore Narnia" is an interactive map offering more details about some of the locations in the world of Narnia. Finally, "Legends in Time" offers an interactive timeline of the events. The first disc also offers some sneak peeks of other titles from the studio. The set comes in a slipcase that resembles the wardrobe.
Final Thoughts: While I thought some of the child actors were just average, "Narnia" still provided a compelling adventure and one remarkable performance from Tilda Swinton as the White Witch. Disney's Collector's Edition set offers very good audio/video quality and a fine selection of supplemental features. Recommended.