During the London Blitz, siblings Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) are shipped out to the country for their own safety. In an abandoned room of the manor house where they have been billeted, Lucy finds a curious wardrobe – one that heads her, her sister, and her brothers into the magical kingdom of Narnia, and the fearsome witch (Tilda Swinton) who rules it.
It was inevitable that one day C.S. Lewis’ popular children’s novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe would make it to Hollywood. The only surprise, to be honest, was that it took until 2005 for it to come out. In the 55 years between the book’s publication and the film’s release there were adaptations via animation, live-action television, and radio, but Walden Media and Walt Disney’s handsomely made feature was the first film. For ardent fans of the novel, it must have been quite a surprise after so many years in waiting.
It is pretty clear, when watching the film today, that an instrumental reason for Lion‘s long-awaited green light was the success of New Line’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lewis’ work and Tolkien’s, while authored by university colleagues, are distinctly different to one another yet when viewing the films there are overwhelmingly obvious similarities. There is more than a hint of Middle Earth to director Andrew Adamson’s adaptation: the world seems grittier than it did in print, and the climactic battle bears a worrisome resemblance to Tolkien’s Pelennor Fields.
The story remains effective, and given the opportunities to drive the narrative still further in a Tolkienesque direction it is remarkable just how much of Lewis’ delicate, storybook style remains. Despite the violence the tone peeks out in key moments, from the beautifully realised Mr and Mrs Beaver (voiced well by Ray Winstone and Dawn French), to the anachronistic lamp post in the snow, and the scarf-wearing faun Mr Tumnus (James McAvoy). Design-wise the film seems content to cut things down the middle: it really is a mash-up of medieval roughness and a delicate 19th century England. Visual effects work, costuming and prosthetic make-up continues to impress, years after release; much of it is unsurprisingly from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop.
Tilda Swinton is wonderful as the villainous white witch Jadis. It is the highest-profile role she has ever played, given her usual penchant for independent and arthouse fare, and it is a casting choice to be applauded. The film also benefits from a strong juvenile cast in the leads. William Moseley and Skandar Keynes are solid enough as the brothers Peter and Edmund, but it is Anna Popplewell as Susan and particularly young Georgie Henley as Lucy who make an impact. Henley is the youngest member of the cast, yet instils her character with strong elements of curiosity and resolve. Liam Neeson brings appropriate gravitas to the voice of the magical lion Aslan, but to be honest it is not a difficult role to play.
Aslan forms the centre of the most contentious element of Lewis’ Narnia books. It is widely known that Lewis wrote his Narnia novels as Christian propaganda – and if this is new information for you, then you only need to read one of the books. As the first novel to be written, Lion is not the most overwhelming of screeds, but it still obvious. It feels as if the film adaptation tries to split the difference. It doesn’t avoid the Christian sub-text (and occasionally the text itself), but neither does it press it too hard. Certainly there is a lot more to the film than preaching one particular religion, but it is there and audience responses may differ based on their attitude to such things.
For those who read the Narnia book as a child, as well as those seeking an entertaining fantasy adventure, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a wonderfully realised and pleasant feature. If you dislike sentimentality, or resent religious themes, it is probably going to irritate more than satisfy. I adored the books when I was young, and for me that makes Lion a delightfully nostalgic treat.