Lovers of CS Lewis, fear not. The phrase ‘faithful adaptation’ was made for this bright, breezy, wholesome family film – sure to delight anyone under 10 or old enough to have an under 10 who needs entertaining.
However, if you go expecting the full-blooded verve of Rings, or even Harry Potter’s growing itch to scratch darker places, you may be disappointed. This is a world of thick buttered toast and warm mugs of tea, knee-length socks and tidy side partings.
In fact, if Brief Encounter’s Alec and Laura had had children, they would surely have been Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. Polite, prim and positively British. None of which is meant meanly – only to highlight that Disney and, in particular, socially conservative co-investors Walden Media, have made exactly the film they intended. It’s an inoffensive fantasy epic with Christian undertones that should provide a blockbusting franchise for years.
Andrew Adamson proves an appropriate director for such fare. The Shrek 2 helmer, who has a background in visual effects, brings an animator’s keen eye to the lush visuals, but shies away from exploiting the potential for blood’n’thunder action. Scenes are often spectacular, but never too brutal for ankle-biters.
The opening is a case in point: bombs rain down on our heroes’ London home, but, even with a direct hit, the danger feels safely at arm’s length. We know there’ll be no nightmare-inducing loss of limbs on the scrambled dash to the bomb shelter.
Similarly, come the battle scenes in Narnia, there’s plenty of glory but precious little guts. For all the fearsome beasts and weaponry on display, the camera always seems chaste, discretely looking away at the moment of impact.
This prudishness, while perhaps a little jarring for modern audiences brought up on harder fare, doesn’t do the storytelling any real harm. The familiar magic of Lewis’ world still enchants. There is a tingle in the trees, warmth in the wind and charm in the creatures, helped no end by smart voice work. Ray Winstone’s wideboy Mr Beaver and Neeson’s stately Aslan feature most prominently, but it’s Rupert Everett’s sly turn as Fox that lingers in the mind.
While, in the flesh, it’s Swinton who impresses – dominating every one of the (too few) scenes she’s in with a layered, shifting performance that’s more other-wordly than many of the special effects. Her Jadis, the powerful White Witch who plunges Narnia into a frozen winter of misery, is a worthy villain for any epic. The dungeon sequence – where McAvoy’s chained Mr Tumnus develops a backbone at her awesome, icy palace – is one of few deviations from Lewis’ blueprint and it’s welcome, adding much needed dramatic meat to the skeletal story.
The child performers give likeable, if uneven, performances, their quality more consistent as the film goes on – evidence of the wisdom of Adamson’s decision to shoot sequentially. What’s less forgivable than the occasionally raw kiddie-thesping is some shoddy effects work. Not in the creatures, who are by and large perfectly rendered, but in the odd backdrop and CGI. One clumsy slice of animation recalls Die Another Day’s infamous surfing sequence, while there’s a moment as the children scarper from ravenous wolves that looks as though they’re standing in front of a ’50s-style back-projection. It makes the drunken car sequence in North By Northwest look positively cinema verité.
The filmmakers’ source material reverence also results in some awkward dialogue and incongruous behaviour slipping through in a saggy mid-section. While too many changes may have perturbed ardent fans, the writers have treated the novel a little like a sacred text.
Nonetheless, events build to a suitably thrilling climax and the potentially didactic Christian subtext doesn’t undercut momentum. Aslan’s status as a shaggy-haired Christ metaphor is sure, but the inference is there for those who want it, rather than rammed home uncomfortably. Sentimentality is also kept to a remarkable minimum as the film sticks (almost) to one ending rather than a series of group hugs.
If the goal was to make an ‘antidote’ to movies drenched in sex and violence – using a 50-year-old book considered unfilmable by some, holy by others – the makers have pulled it off with some panache. And in all likelihood they’ll be rewarded with a vast audience. If you’re disenchanted with the sweary lairy mass of modern cinema, this is a refreshing alternative. Two sequels have already been green-lit and there’s no doubt Narnia is worth a return trip.
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A Sunny Delight Rings, the first Narnia will captivate youngsters without boring adults. A solid foundation for a fledgling franchise.