Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers takes a belated look at some extended Lion vs. Witch action...
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.
It's all too easy for me to just sit here and compare/contrast Andrew Adamson's film and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (and to a lesser extent, the Harry Potter series), and really, I'd love to avoid it, but I'm just not a good enough writer. I'll apologise here and now for this.
The fact of the matter is that 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 holding fast to the rights and watching The Lord of the Rings box office with dislodged, salivating tongues. The fact that the studio went directly to LOTR practical effects designers Weta, and filmed in New Zealand to make the film is a pretty stern back up. 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 real shocker in Hollywood wasn't the obvious cash grabs, but the hiring of Adamson as director. Adamson was hot off two Shrek computer animated films with 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. 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 forgettable, 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 gut and blood jokes).
Adamson gets the job done here, but on a disappointingly bare minimum level. His Narnia is visually rich, eye-catching, and pretty much 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 does 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).
If I hadn't seen the solid lands of Middle Earth and Hogwarts I may be singing a different tune, and that's the problem, these films (well Jackson's films at least) have all but ruined the genre for me. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe isn't by any normal means a bad film, but beyond its prettiness I found myself unable to care about what I was watching. The world did not engulf me, nor did its characters, or their perils.
I would attribute my basic apathy to the story to the fact that I'm not very fond of the original books (I read the first two when I was younger, got bored, and gave up), if it wasn't for the fact that I find Tolkien's novels almost equally flawed (which I also read two of, got bored, and gave up on). I understand that these are classics of literature, but it's just not possible for me 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 (not my favourite genre), and rework it into a modern filmic masterpiece (in my opinion, please Tolkien fans, no hate mail, it's just one illiterate's opinion). 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 one-dimensional trooper. 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, 3-plus hour long movies to establish characters is overkill, but I for one found it invaluable from a purely, and rawly emotional standpoint. Let's not make a habit of it, but admit that sometimes it's needed.
I was hoping that perhaps this extended edition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe would flesh out these boring children, and vapidly cute little animals, as the extended versions of LOTR had (even if it was unneeded). Unfortunately, I didn't notice a single added shot. Either these shots were so perfectly reintegrated that they're seamless, or they are so unimportant that they weren't needed. I'm thinking it's more of the later, though my basic disinterest is probably a telling sign of my attention level the first time around, when I didn't have to pay attention for review purposes. Events still move too fast, and too much is taken for granted for me to really be touched by the final reel.
But what of those battle scenes, the ones I don't remember from the source novel? I see them as another obvious LOTR cash-in, as that trilogy (or at least the last 2/3rds) pretty much set the bar for massive battle scenes from here on out. Adamson doesn't have it in him to thrill me to the bone, but there are more than a few shots that achieve a certain majesty, mostly those of flying creatures dropping rocks on non-flying creatures. Even in its extended form, the battle feels stilted and sudden. The battle isn't set in the layers Jackson used so well during the attack on Helms Deep, and the elapsed time is short due to a lack of cutaways. The big problem here though, is the lack of build up. Zulu, Braveheart, and the two latter LOTR films had at a lot of build up to the release of violence, in the case of Zulu and [/i]LOTR[/i] - hours.
Adamson doesn't do up-close action very well at all, and his editors really over-do 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.
Before I wrap this up I should probably mention the acting and special effects.
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 feel natural. It's always obvious that these kids are acting very well, rather than melting into the story. The fact that they're thinly drawn can be attributed to Lewis' source material, but as I said, the people behind LOTR found ways to flesh-out their characters. The best acting comes 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. Swinton is hard to take one's eyes off of however, but we all know the bad guy is usually the best character with these things.
The effects are decent, at some points during the battle brilliant, but always obviously effects. Some animal characters (the beavers, the fox) are a little too cartoony looking 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. I wonder how much time Weta put into this production, considering it coincided with founder Peter Jackson's King Kong adaptation, which like it or not, has some astounding effects shots. The problem here is, as always with special effects, context. If the character and story doesn't sell an effect as real, it doesn't seem as such, and no matter how solid the voice acting, these characters are obviously effects. Aslan is no contender for Gollum's crown.
Honestly, I'm a little disappointed here. This is a newly filmed, big budget spectacular, but this transfer is only average. Colours are bright and 'realistically' rendered, and black levels are sharp, but that's where the compliments end. The overall image is too soft, details suffer, especially in darker scenes. Low lighting causes an overall redness to the frame, and backgrounds are next to invisible. Lighter sequences look better, but still suffer, as reds bleed into whites, and moving edges are often blocky. Edge enhancement isn't too obvious, but some of the more shoddy green-screen shots suffer this ailment.
The Dolby Digital and DTS tracks are more what one should expect from such a film. Dialogue is perfectly clear without overpowering subtle background sound. Directional effects are nearly perfect, and add a much needed three dimensional quality to the film's world. 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). The LFE levels are fantastic, keeping the music deep and the action lively without over exerting the viewer.
This 4-disc set is a sort of cash-in on the superior LOTR Extended Editions in itself (packaging, etc.), but these DVDs have a feel all there own, so far as the video extras and documentaries go. Nothing here is as effortlessly entertaining as the oodles of stuff found on New Line's discs, but like the film these extras are more child friendly without being placative.
Disc one houses the same extras as the previous release. I never listened to the commentary tracks on the original theatrical version, so I'm not sure how the producers have compensated the extra footage, but things flow well enough. 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 is unnecessary once the viewer gets to disc four of this set (more on that in a few).
The first disc has a few more kid friendly extras like a blooper reel and some nice little Narnia pop-up facts. Adamson also supplies a brief introduction.
Disc two is not unlike the second disc of the previous special edition release of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Those with a distinct sense of deja vu need not worry about their mental health, this is, in fact, the same disc included with the previous release. Sony pulled this same trick a few years back with their extended edition release of Hellboy. We've got to give Peter Jackson and his friends some major credit for not repeating themselves on the multiple releases of either The Lord of the Rings or King Kong.
This 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, so thank God for the 'Play All' option. 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 30 minutes.
The third disc houses a rather encompassing documentary about writer C.S. Lewis entitled Dreamer of Narnia. The doc covers pretty much everything, and features playful, if not slightly unprofessional looking graphics. This is a longer version of the brief featurette found on disc two, and with a runtime of over an hour, it stumbles into boredom at times. Fans of the novels with only a base knowledge of the writer will love this feature, but I'm not sure it needed its own disc. Isn't this a bit of a waste of space?
So far the set isn't worth it's steep price tag. Those who've already purchased the earlier two disc set will probably be upset by the fact that they have to repurchase the same special features just to get the slightly extended version of the film. I'm not a fan of repackaging myself, but here, on the set's fourth and final disc we come to the fleshy nubben of the set. Disc four contains a fabulous video commentary cum in depth making of documentary cum story board and special effects comparison reel. Disney did something similar on their Finding Nemo DVD a few years back, but this is a much more intensive study.
The feature allows the viewer to gather all necessary information pertaining to the film while still maintaining the context to which it belongs. I hope this catches on because I'd love to see it utilised on a film I've personally enjoyed more. I do wonder about disc capacity, and whether or not this could've all fit on the first disc with the kids' commentary by utilizing either a branching or alternate angle mode. If that were possible, and Disney hadn't double dipped the rest of the now moot special features (as this feature basically usurps the rest), we might've had a perfect, and more affordable two disc set on our hands. The only problem with the feature is the fact that the viewer is at the mercy of the film's pace. Some facts and images are passed by a bit too fast.
Things are wrapped up with an anatomy of a scene featurette, which doesn't bring all that new to the table, and a series of image galleries. The conceptual art is incredible, and points to a much richer, and much darker film. If only that were the film Adamson had felt compelled to create.
Also listed as features on the official release blurb were a booklet and certificate of authenticity. My DVD, a full retail version, did not have either of these.
Fans of the film will adore this collection, and even those of us that found the final product disappointingly average might get a bit out of the extra features, if not the extra footage. I can see the continued series improving in the same bounds as the Harry Potter series, and if so, audiences should be in for a delight in a few more years. Prince Caspian is in pre-production right now, and I hope the creative team has learned from their mistakes.
I apologise that this review didn't arrive before the disc's release, but I received the screener a week too late. If any fans out there were still waiting, I say go for it. Non-fans, the extra footage makes basically no difference. If you didn't like the film before, you probably won't like it any more now, but the fourth disc's commentary/documentary/art show is a really great extra, maybe even worth a rent for non-fans.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 12th December 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Surround Spanish and French
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, C.S. Lewis: Dreamer of Narnia, Visualizing the Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, Anatomy of a Scene: Behind the Battle, Art of Narnia Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Andrew Adamson
Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton
Length: 153 minutes
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