Judge Clark Douglas is not a tame critic.
Our review of The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, published October 16th, 2002, is also available.
C.S. Lewis' enchanting tale comes to life in this classic BBC adaptation.
In anticipation of the theatrical release of Michael Apted's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the smaller-scale BBC adaptations of four books in C.S. Lewis' beloved The Chronicles of Narnia series are being re-released on DVD. The books were initially presented as three six-episode series (with Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader being combined), and were later edited into feature films for home video. Fortunately, this set offers the unedited episodes as they were originally aired.
Things kick off with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, surely the most well-known of the novels. The year is 1940, and siblings Peter (Richard Dempsey), Susan (Sophie Cook), Edmund (Jonathan R. Scott) and Lucy (Sophie Wilcox) are sent to the countryside to live with an elderly professor (Michael Aldridge, Chimes at Midnight) during the turmoil of World War II. One day, Lucy peeks inside the professor's wardrobe and discovers a portal to a magical land called Narnia, where it's always winter and never Christmas. Eventually, all four children pay a visit to Narnia, where they encounter the faun Mr. Tumnus, the friendly Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Kerry Shale and Leslie Nicol), the villainous White Witch (Barbara Kellerman) and the noble Aslan the Lion (voiced rather terribly by meek, nasally Ronald Pickup).
While The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does its best to remain faithful to the novel, it can be challenging to get over the series' budget limitations. It's one thing to see the cheap-looking fur sported by Mr. Tumnus; it's another thing entirely to see the hilariously cheesy suits being worn by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Still, if one can overlook these problems, they'll find a quietly tolerable adaptation of the tale. The acting is far from award-worthy, but most of the cast fares well enough and the buck-toothed, perpetually grinning Sophie Wilcox is actually kind of delightful as Lucy. Some patience is required, as the story generally moves at a snail's pace (surely this tale could have been told just as effectively using only 2/3rds of the running time), but Lewis purists are likely to find it more satisfying than the CGI spectacle of the 2005 big-budget version. They're both sort of tedious in their own unique ways (the books are still the way to go if you're unfamiliar with these stories), but this one has a certain measure of integrity going for it.
While two novels were forced to share time in Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the former gets particularly short-changed. Lewis' Prince Caspian is even more plot-heavy than The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, but the tale is granted only two half-hour episodes in this collection. The story of the Pevensie family's return to Narnia and their attempts to aid the titular prince are rushed through at an alarming speed—the details are presented with relative clarity, but the hurried nature of the whole thing robs the tale of its dramatic weight. I realize I just finished complaining about the slow pace of the first series, but this attempted correction rather overshoots the mark. One gets the feeling that Prince Caspian was only adapted in the first place because it introduces characters and plot elements that are essential to the more compelling The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Basically, it serves as an overlong prologue to that tale.
Fortunately, the four episodes that comprise The Voyage of the Dawn Treader offer a vastly more compelling viewing experience. The pacing is finally just about right, the story is well-handled and the production values are actually a small notch better than the previous installments (it still looks awfully cheap, but not so awful). This time around, Edmund and Lucy are joined by their bratty cousin Eustace (David Thwaites) as they board the Dawn Treader and join Caspian on a quest to find seven lords scattered across numerous strange islands. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was always my favorite of the novels as a kid, so perhaps I'm biased, but this section of the series is genuinely enjoyable. The swashbuckling mouse Reepicheep (Warwick Davis, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) receives a larger role this time around, and his prickly encounters with the entertainingly spoiled Eustace bring a welcome comic energy to the proceedings. I also dig the surreal nature of this particular adventure, as the cast drifts from one peculiar situation to another.
Finally, things conclude on a positive note with the six-episode adaptation of The Silver Chair. This time, Eustace (transformed from a spoiled brat into a perfectly reasonable chap after the events of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and his school chum Jill Pole (Camilla Power) are whisked away to Narnia, where Aslan gives them the task of finding the long-lost Prince Rillian (rightful heir to the throne of Narnia). Eventually, they meet up with a marshwiggle named Puddleglum (Tom Baker, Doctor Who), who agrees to serve as their guide for the remainder of the journey. The episodic quest format is quite similar to that of the previous installment, and the results are equally satisfying. The acting is particularly solid this time around, with the wonderful Tom Baker essaying Puddleglum to delightful effect. In addition, Barbara Kellerman's villainous take on the Green Lady is noticeably more effective than her somewhat bland performance as The White Witch.
The DVD ranges from acceptable to miserable, which is typical of BBC productions from this era. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe looks the worst, with lots of bleeding, awful detail and no depth whatsoever. Basically, it looks like a worn-out VHS tape. Things are a good deal better by the time we get to The Silver Chair, though the image is still pretty soft. Still, the later installments aren't distractingly bad. The audio is solid enough, with Geoffrey Burgon's warm score coming through with clarity. On occasion, the dialogue sounds a bit distant or muffled. A fourth disc offers approximately 75 minutes of bonus features. Things kick off with "Past Watchful Dragons," an interview with Oxford Historian Humphrey Carpenter, who talks about Lewis' life and writings. You also get interviews from the 2003 cast reunion, outtakes, some special effects footage, archival interviews from the series premiere and some photo galleries.
While never hitting great artistic heights, the back half of this box set is well worth checking out. You can endure the tedious adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and the flat-out terrible hour-long version of Prince Caspian if you like, but I'd recommend simply skipping ahead to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and plowing forward from there. Proceed with caution.
Not guilty, but only because I don't want to anger Aslan.
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