Director Andrew Adamson makes his live-action debut here after the two Shreks, but it's an easy transition for him, given that a good portion of the film has a CGI/character complexity ratio about as high as the last few Star Wars films. Although Narnia doesn't lend itself well to the cheeky pop culture reference-o-rama that Shrek did, it shares those films' same treacly sentimentality and market-researched plasticity.
Being nothing if not cleverly modern, the film begins in Harry Potter fashion, with the four Pevensie children being whisked out of the London Blitz on a Hogwarts-looking train to a castle-like old house in the country where a grumpy housekeeper and a magical wardrobe awaits. The normal-seeming wardrobe is actually - if you enter it at the right time and push through all the fur coats to the back - a gateway to the fantastical world of Narnia. The youngest Pevensie, cherub-cheeked 10-year-old Lucy (Georgie Henley, almost too adorable), does just that during a game of hide and seek and finds herself in a snowy wood near an incongruous gaslight, silently hissing in the wintry gloaming. She meets a faun named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), who invites her back to his warren for some tea. It's a perfect little retreat for the gleaming Lucy, even if she may know that eventually her older siblings will also show up and ruin her whole adventure. Unfortunately for viewers, their presence will also help ruin the film.
When The Chronicles of Narnia is concerned with Lucy and the wood, it gets by just fine. McAvoy and Henley have some lovely scenes together, him scared of his own shadow and her eager to explore this snow-hushed world with a new friend. Adamson also perfectly captures the book's most iconic scene: the sorcerous gleam in the dark eyes of the White Witch Jadis (Tilda Swinton, radiantly evil) when she comes across Lucy's treacherous brother Edmund (Skander Keynes) and plies him with sweets and just a hint of seduction to reveal information about his siblings. Unfortunately, once all the Pevensie kids come piling through the wardrobe - including mopey Susan (Anna Popplewell) and irritatingly blonde Peter (William Moseley) - the film moves on to bigger but not better things.
The kids have shown up at dire times for Narnia: Jadis rules with an iron fist, having kept the country locked in winter for a century. Revolt is brewing, though, amongst the many charming, talking animal species of Narnia (everything from beavers to centaurs), and word is that the arrival of four sons and daughters of Adam (humans) presages the return of the great lion Aslan - Churchill to Jadis' Hitler. Before long, the snow begins to thaw, war will be waged and the young Pevensies had better get with the right side before it starts. They must also endure, along with the rest of us, endless lessons in faith and family.
For those without the Cliff Notes, Aslan is Lewis' stand-in for the sacrificial Christ; not surprisingly he's also the least interesting element of the book and film. A truly magnificent creature, Aslan is nobility incarnate: wise and loving, stern but judicious, and voiced (as all surrogate father figures are in films these days) by a regal Liam Neeson. The story does what it can to introduce some doubt into the possibility that Aslan and the outnumbered forces of righteousness - a mythological mélange of brightly arrayed creatures - will triumph, but there's about as much suspense as in the New Testament.
An even more predictable development is when Chronicles shifts from Potter-esque whimsy (adorable British moppets running about in knee socks) to a Lord of the Rings-styled battle which has all the drama of a video game. In keeping to a PG rating, not to mention placating his Christian paymasters, Adamson makes war seem a pretty bloodless and painless affair; no big deal, really, especially when the outcome is so preordained and lacking in drama. There's a creepy element to this glossing over of violence, especially given how affected Lewis was by his World War I experiences, and the fact that World War II is raging right on the other side of the wardrobe. There is, however, the sight of Swinton, with a sword in each hand, striking poses more fit for an avant-garde fashion runway than the battlefield - either a great camp moment or something painful to behold, depending on your disposition.
In Lewis' hands, Narnia was a loosely-sketched thing, a small country that one could comfortably walk across in a few days, never fully described with the same cartographic intensity of Tolkien. The books left plenty of holes for one's imagination, in between the cheeky talking otters and suspicious trees there was an entire world to conjure up in one's head. Once it leaves the snowy wood, Adamson's film makes the indescribable all too real, sadly. There's no hideous beast or CGI landscape rendered here that can compare with what lurks in the mind of even the dullest, least imaginative child.
The exhaustive DVD set includes two discs: a blooper reel, a commentary track with the kids and director, a filmmaker's commentary, plus countless making-of featurettes that fill the entire second DVD.
Or... consider the even more exhaustive four-disc set, including an extended cut of the film, gag reel, and all the making-of stuff on the prior DVD release. Plus two more discs with featurettes and documentaries about C.S. Lewis (disc three) and more making-of footage (disc four).
Does this breastplate make me look fat?
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Director: Andrew Adamson
Also starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Liam Neeson, Mark Johnson, Philip Steuer, Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely