Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits the land of Narnia, minus the extended scenes, but plus 1080p...
Note: the following film review was taken and altered from my Extended Cut DVD review.
In this, the first part of C.S. Lewis' epic Chronicles of Narnia children's book series, four siblings escape their WWII ravaged home in London to a mansion in the country. The giant domicile hides a mysterious wardrobe that serves as a passage to another world, the world of Narnia. Narnia has been in a frozen disarray for hundreds of years under the cruel reign of the evil White Witch. But there is a prophecy that tells of two sons of Adam, and two daughters of Eve (read: humans) that will save Narnia from its eternal winter.
The Chronicles of Narnia would not have been green-lit had Peter Jackson's filmed versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels flopped. Disney was likely holding fast to the Narnia rights and watching The Lord of the Rings box office with wagging and salivating tongues. The studio even went directly to LOTR practical effects designers Weta, and filmed in New Zealand to make the film. After Mel Gibson's S&M, slow motion fetish-fest The Passion of the Christ rolled in the Christian cash, the studio made the decision to up-play the original story's Christian themes to sweeten the bait (though I have to give them credit for not softening the original story's strong Christian overtones, anything else would be a sell-out). The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may have some artistic merit, and entertainment value, but the whole film is mad dash for the sweet green cash.
The real shocker wasn't the studio’s acquisitiveness, but the hiring of Andrew Adamson as director. Adamson was hot off the first two Shrek computer animated films, produced by DreamWorks SKG, an animation department that was made and maintained by ex-Disney employees. Adamson's studio jump was seen by some as less than chivalrous. His hiring in general was plenty suspect to those of us who were actually looking forward to the film.
Not to get too down on the man or his green ogre, but the Shrek movies were not character driven, poignant, or even particularly dramatic work. They’re joke driven. Personally, I laughed at the first one the first time I saw it, and have found its many pop culture references entirely tiring on subsequent forced viewings. The two movies are insanely popular, but they're easily forgotten, surface layer writing isn't the kind of thing I would expect to stand up to the deeply dramatic and rich worlds of Jackson's LOTR. (though I suppose anyone watching Braindead in the early '90s wouldn't ever suspect Jackson of being capable of anything beyond fart, gut and blood jokes).
Adamson gets the job done here, but on a disappointingly bare level. His Narnia is visually rich, attractive, and pretty much exactly what I pictured when I read the first two books as a kid. Real world Britain is even more eyeball-pleasing, and the art and set design staff do a pretty good job of not making this fantasy world look exactly like that of Middle Earth. The problem is that Jackson's Middle Earth, and to a certain extent the worlds of the Harry Potter films, have a realistic, gigantic, and lived-in feel to them. Narnia is very pretty, but like the worlds of Shrek, pretty shallow. I don't get the feeling of this being a lived in world, with thousands of years of history, and I never forget that I'm watching a film set or computer amalgamation (though the botched green-screen composites don't really help me there).
I attribute my personal apathy towards the plot and characters to the fact that I'm not very fond of the original books (or the two I read). I understand that these are classics, but it's just not possible to overlook the fact that I find them excruciatingly dull. What Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh managed to do with The Lord of the Rings was to take a dated fantasy series that was the partial inspiration of all fantasy that followed, and rework it into something not only accessible to the general public, but something cineastes, intellectuals, and other snobs can enjoy. It's all in the adaptation, and when done right a film can be better than the original book, at least in the context that it works for and touches the greatest overall theatre going audience, from high-brow to low.
Adamson and his crew has followed C.S. Lewis' source novel a little too closely. The book was written with children in mind, and the story moves way to fast, at least in these post- LOTR times. Jackson and Co. knew what characters needed a lot fleshing-out to gain the most dramatic tension possible. The best example is the character of Faramir, who in the books is an entirely generic ‘hero’. In the film (much to Tolkein fanatics' chagrin) things are changed to give the character a proper drive and arch. An audience watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is expected to take the filmmaker's word for the fact that they should care for these people and creatures. Some would argue that taking two, three-plus hour long movies to establish characters is overkill, but I found it invaluable from a raw emotional standpoint. Let's not make a habit of it, but admit that sometimes it's needed.
Adamson doesn't do up-close action very well at all, and his editors over-edit even the simplest shots. There isn't a lot of time taken to establish geography in any shot, and this is a huge problem during action. Hopefully Disney will be willing to let the next film in the series play out a little slower, and Adamson will grow a bit as a filmmaker, because right now his attention span isn't to far from his Shrek days.
Some wide-shot action is at least nominally majestic, especially those featuring flying creatures dropping rocks on non-flying creatures, but the battle fields are stilted and sudden. The battle isn't set in the layers Jackson used so well during the attack on Helms Deep for The Two Towers, and the elapsed time is short due to a lack of cutaways. The bigger problem here though, is the lack of build up. Zulu, Braveheart, the two latter LOTR films, Kingdom of Heaven and pretty much every other classic cinematic large scale battle had at a lot of build up to the release of violence, in the case of Zulu and [/i]LOTR[/i] a matter of hours.
As a non-fan of Harry Potter, who thought the series didn't pick up until the third episode, I was always impressed with the calibre of child actors. The kids here aren't bad, by any means, but never act naturally. It's always obvious that they’re acting well, rather than melting into the story or their characters. They're thinly drawn nature can be attributed to Lewis' source material, but as I said, the actors behind LOTR found ways to flesh-out their characters. The best performances come from the voice cast, and Tilda Swinton as the evil White Witch. The problem with this praise is that most of these parts were just well (and sometimes all too obviously) cast, and these actors are simply replaying older roles.
The effects are decent, at some points during the battle brilliant, but always obviously effects. Some animal characters (the beavers and the fox) are a little too cartoony for my taste (though I understand this is a kid's film), and some of the more fantastical creatures don't blend into each other in a group. The difference between practical and digital effects is hard to miss. The problem here, as it usually is with ineffective special effects, is context. If the story doesn't sell an effect as real, the illusion is obvious, and no matter how solid the voice acting, these characters are clearly effects.
After two disappointing DVD release, both the extended and theatrical cuts, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is finally sharp and clean enough to look the hundred and some million bucks it cost. This Blu-ray presentation is really close to perfect, presented in full 1080p/AVC MPEG-4, blah biddy blah blah. The lack of compression makes a comparison of this and the previous DVD releases pointless.
Colours are even brighter and 'realistically' rendered, black levels are deep and as rich as my set would allow. Blues are especially clean and warm reds and yellows really pop. Some skin-tones and browns display small amounts of noise and cross-colouration, but you have to get really close to see it. The overall image sharpness almost erases memories of soft and choppy details. Lowly lit scenes are still a bit on the noisy side, and cause an overall redness in the frame, but now the backgrounds are still discernable. Lighter sequences look basically perfect, with only minor edge enhancement in busier shots.
The problem with this amazing visual clarity is the occasionally spotty digital effects are often the most highly detailed thing in frame, causing them to stand out even more against the real life sets, actors and backgrounds. In exchange, however, some wide shots have such an incredible depth of field that they appear three-dimensional.
I still haven’t found the money to catch up with the rest of the Blu-ray world audio-wise, and still don’t have uncompressed PCM abilities (I do have a Paypal account, however). The included Dolby Digital track is comparable to the extended release’s DTS track, and pretty fantastic even with its slight compression. Dialogue is perfectly clear without overpowering subtle background sound. Directional effects are nearly perfect, and add to that three dimensional quality. LFE is thick and room rumbling, but it does lack a bit of punch, which is likely solved in the PCM track, so I’m going to ignore the problem.
The score runs hot and cold, sometimes beautiful, other times entirely unoriginal and obvious. There's a hair too much Enya-like vocalisation for me overall (the final credits of all three Lord of the Rings films had this exact problem, especially Fellowship, which actually used Enya herself).
Disc one houses the same extras as both of the original DVD releases, starting with the same two commentary tracks, one technical and the other fun. The children's commentary with director Adamson is the better track due to the fact that the kids themselves are pretty infectious. The later track with Adamson and some of his crew would be unnecessary had this release included the ‘disc four’ extras from the extended edition release. The first disc also has a few more kid friendly extras like a blooper reel and some nice little Narnia pop-up facts.
Disc two is not unlike the second disc of the previous special edition releases, but with the added fun of a Blu-ray game. ‘The Battle for Narnia’ froze up on me three times, which meant I had to restart the disc, which meant I had to sit through another one to two minute load time, which was pretty annoying. The load times are just brutal, I can’t picture any children (the group to which the game is aimed) sitting still for three plus minutes of loading. After the third try I gave up. Hopefully those of you with newer players can tell me if it was fun or not.
The rest of the disc is basically one big documentary cut up into a billion little pieces. Returning to the main menu every few minutes isn't my idea of a fun, and the disc’s producers don’t supply a ‘play all’ option for the encompassing menus. Despite their length, the ’Evolution of an Epic’ features are a pretty breezy viewing, though the pace is occasionally a bit too fast for the bits I actually cared about (especially the Richard Taylor of Weta, and Howard Berger or KNB sections, which only run about six minutes apiece). The ‘Creatures, Lands & Legends’ sections, covering the mythology and design of the world are far too short.
The two biggest sections of the disc are ‘Chronicles of a Director’ and ‘The Children's Magical Journey’ featurettes. ‘Chronicles of a Director’ gives the viewer a nice glance into the making of the film, and forces some respect upon director Adamson, but when directly compared to the similar footage found on the LOTR DVDs, the production almost looks easy (not to deplete the production crew's effort, but LOTR looked like a living Hell). There's a bit too much brown-nosing, but this kind of behaviour is to be expected from such featurettes. ‘The Children's Magical Journey’ is pretty darn endearing, and made me wish I'd enjoyed the final film a bit more. Seeing the epic filmmaking experience from the kid's point of view is a great touch. Another breezy thirty minutes.
But there are some things missing here. The option of the extended cut is a big dump on the heads of the film’s fans, as we all know a seamless branching option could easily hold room for both versions on the disc. Besides this are the super cool PiP features that adorned the four disc extended edition release. I suppose Disney does have an excuse here, as the majority of standalone Blu-ray players are unable to deal with PiP technology, but it still seems that the option would’ve been perfect for a high definition release.
We stand on the cusp of Prince Caspian’s theatrical release, and then we’ll see if Adamson and Co. have learned from their mistakes here. Everything about this first Blu-ray release sings the song of a double dip release around the time part two finds its way to home video. Missing is the extended cut, and the extended cut exclusive extras. However, the disc does look and sound about as sharp as one can expect, with only a few small flecks of compression noise to hold it back from a perfect score. To bad the game took three tries and several minutes to not load properly.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 13th May 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: PCM 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Spanish, Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Portuguese, Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Thai
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Extras: Filmmakers/Director/Actor Commentaries, Bloopers, Fun Facts, Creating Narnia, Chronicles of a Director, The Children’s Magical Journey, Evolution of an Epic, Creatures’ Lands and Legends, Creatures of the World, Explore Narnia, Legend in Time, Game, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Andrew Adamson
Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton
Genre: Family and Fantasy
Length: 135 minutes