With the feature film The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe having been such a success, it's no wonder there's a renewal of interest in filmed versions of other books in CS Lewis' Narnia series. What's nice about this release on DVD of the BBC production of The Silver Chair is that it's been handled right: released with remastered video and sound, so that the 1990 production appears on its best footing.
The Silver Chair is actually the fourth volume in the Chronicles of Narnia: following The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader'. (As a fantasy scholar - I did my Ph.D. dissertation on the fantasy novel - let me assure you that this really is the correct ordering of the volumes. The peculiar re-ordering of the Chronicles to put The Magician's Nephew first instead of as #6 is something that was done after Lewis' death, based on a rather spurious interpretation of an off-hand comment he made to a child in a letter, in which he commented that it was fine to re-read them in internal chronological order. The original publication order - which has The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first - is in narrative terms definitely the best way to read them the first time.)
In any case, The Silver Chair introduces us to a new set of protagonists: Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb, rather than the four Pevensie children. Eustace has already been a character in a Narnia story - he plays a significant role in The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader' - but it's not necessary to know that part of the backstory to enjoy The Silver Chair. Here, Jill and Eustace are unexpectedly brought into Narnia, where they're given the task of rescuing the missing Prince Rillian, heir to the Narnian throne. It's a classic fairy-tale story, given a characteristically original and fresh CS Lewis treatment: the events and places the children encounter have enough echoes in folklore and fairy-tale to have depth, while also being new and creative.
Lewis' straightforward narrative style translates into film fairly readily; we don't get as much insight into the characters' internal development as we do in the original book (even in his short children's books Lewis is good at giving psychological depth to characters) but the events of the story itself unfold pretty nearly as they do in the original. The BBC production of The Silver Chair is fairly long, at 155 minutes, but with the variety of scenes and encounters in the story, it never feels slow and is sure to interest young viewers. The settings range from the modern school where Jill and Eustace start out, to the marshes where they meet Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle, to the giants' castle, to the underground world of the Emerald Witch: all distinctive and nicely realized locations that move the story along in an interesting way. I was pleased overall with the fidelity of the film to Lewis' story; for instance, the key scene in which the Emerald Witch tries to convince the children that "Narnia" is just a dream is given nearly in its entirety. That's a good thing to see, because it's really the central point of the whole book; while I don't think that it's handled quite as well as it could have been in terms of capturing the scene from the book, it does provide the viewer with the key insight that it's not just the Witch's magical powers that are dangerous, but more so her manipulation of the children's conceptions of reality. The make-or-break moment is Puddleglum's declaration that "I shall live like a Narnian, even if there is no Narnia," which is pulled off nicely by the solid actor who plays Puddleglum.
Let's face it, though - one question on any viewer's mind is going to be the special effects. Are they acceptably plausible? The short answer is yes, they are. We're all so spoiled by lavish CGI at this point that it's easy to be overly picky, so let's get the downsides out of the way. OK, there are a few rather dreadful moments in The Silver Chair. There's a giant rubber snake at one point that can only be described as lamentable. A few stuffed hedgehogs on the fringes of an early scene are best ignored. Aslan is... well, the problem is that if you know and love the character of Aslan, and know who he's supposed to be, it's a bit difficult to take an awkward, static stuffed lion as Aslan. All in all, though, Aslan-the-stuffed-lion could be a lot worse, and he's only in a couple of scenes.
For the most part, though, the special effects and costuming in The Silver Chair are nicely done and not that dated. Unlike some of the other Narnia stories, The Silver Chair takes place mostly among human or human-looking creatures, rather than talking animals, so the major problem of weird-looking fake animals is simply not an issue. The filmmakers made the excellent decision to make Puddleglum look more human than the way that he's described in the book... thus avoiding the cheesiness factor entirely. They also cast a solid actor in the role, which helps quite a bit. The giants are handled nicely as well, coming across as quite convincingly gigantic. All the rest of the sets, costumes, and special effects in the story look fine; some are just OK, but others are quite impressive.
In the end, The Silver Chair works quite well as a filmed production for children, one that's true to Lewis' story while also providing an engaging visual experience. It's a fun story with a solid core of meaning to it, told with engaging characters and interesting action. The overall production may not be as polished as the eventual silver-screen version we'll probably get one of these days, but it's faithful to the original book and is very likely to please both young viewers and their parents.
The Silver Chair, which was made for British television, appears in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It has been digitally remastered for this DVD release, as is evident in the overall clean, crisp, dirt-free appearance of the image. The one major problem is that the colors are particularly bright. Greens, in particular, are best described as "incandescent"; they practically glow. Other primary colors tend to leap off the screen as well, but greens are particularly awful. Surprisingly, though, this doesn't end up being as much of a bother as one would expect; it would have been nice to have a balanced visual palette, but frankly for this fantasy film I'd rather have eye-poppingly bright colors over drab, un-remastered browns. In any case, the interior shots with more subtle colors look great; closeups in particular look superb.
The remastered audio track gives us a Dolby 5.1 (which is the default) and a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack. While there's not a lot of surround action, of course, the track is clean and distinct, with clear dialogue and an overall pleasant sound. Volume is handled perfectly, and the different elements of the track are well balanced. English closed captions are provided.
The only special feature is an insert in the DVD case, giving background information on CS Lewis. It's interesting, giving a brief background on the author for those who haven't heard anything about him before.
The 1990 BBC production of The Silver Chair stands up well to the test of time, providing an entertaining filmed story that's faithful to CS Lewis' original children's book. It's not perfect, but it's fun to watch, and the remastering of the image and sound makes it a more pleasant experience all round. I'd definitely recommend this to parents for their children: it's a good story, with excitement but almost no violence. (The only potentially frightening scene is the slaying of a giant snake, but it's not too bad.) Recommended.