CS Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950. His seven Narnia books have gone on to sell 85 million copies – making Narnia the second most popular book series ever (after, inevitably, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series). It has taken 55 years for Lewis’s epic fable to reach the silver screen, and it is no understatement to say that technology has only just caught up with his vivid imagination.
Set during World War II, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe finds the four Pevensie children, evacuated from Blitz-hit London, playing hide-and-seek in the country home of old professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent). They happen upon a wardrobe as somewhere to hide and, on stepping into it, they find themselves in a spectacular parallel universe known as Narnia.
This fairytale place, in which woodland creatures talk and mythological creatures come to life, has fallen under the spell of a mad sorceress, Jadis the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). Her considerable dark magic powers have plunged Narnia into an endless winter, and the children soon find themselves caught up in a “prophesy” that leads them, aided by Narnia’s wise and rightful leader, the lion Aslan (Liam Neeson), on a quest to free the world from icy enslavement in a “winter without Christmas”. Along the way, the two brothers and two sisters discover courage and learn of good and evil.
In the hands of Shrek director Andrew Adamson, Lewis’s tale with its Christian subtext is considerably fleshed out. Lewis’s framework provides the basis for the screenwriters’ and director’s flights of fantasy and they add much colour to the story. At no point do the characters become cartoonish and they are never less than believeable as a result. Ultimately Adamson’s lightness of touch lets the central characters, the children, carry the movie.
But while the timeless tale and faithful script are reason enough to see this adaptation, it’s the spectacular visuals that make this film such a treat. The Beaver family, voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French, are amongst the most realistic computer generated characters yet to appear in a movie. Visual effects teams from Industrial Light and Magic, Rhythm & Hues and Sony Imageworks evidently spent a great deal of painstaking time on these and the other characters, and it really shows. In comparison, the CGI wolves of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow look antiquated and slap-dash.
All the attention to detail results in a magical winter wonderland, beautifully filmed in New Zealand, that holds enough visual detail for children and adults alike to admire. In amongst all this, the actors are no less impressive. Dashing newcomer William Moseley plays the elder brother Peter as he grows from boy to man in the course of the film. Anna Popplewell, recently seen in Girl with a Pearl Earring, is the practical elder sister Susan. Skandar Keynes plays the black sheep of the family, Edmund, who succumbs to the White Witch’s temptations of turkish delight before making amends for his dark ways. Georgie Henley is Lucy, the youngest of the children, and conveys the wonder of Narnia from a 10-year-old’s point of view. All four children are perfectly cast.
The script feels resolutely English, despite the American director and New Zealand setting. “It’s an awfully big wardrobe,” utters awestruck Lucy at one point; later Susan augments Peter’s protestation that “We’re not heroes” with the immortal line: “We’re from Finchley.”
Unlike the Lord of the Rings saga, Narnia is first and foremost a children’s story, and Adamson keeps true to this. But adults who’ve read the Narnia books and those whose inner child never grew up will love this impressive film. Classier than Harry Potter and considerably lighter than Lord of the Rings, this first piece of the Narnia saga is the perfect start to an epic franchise and is nothing less than an enchanting treat.