As with the “Harry Potter” franchise, half the battle for movies like this are won or lost by the casting director. In “The Chronicles of Narnia”, holy savior of Christian bookshops the world over, the four children—Lucy (Georgie Hensley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley), and Susan (Anna Popplewell)—typify the Hollywood take on the English color palette: brightly prosaic with their pale cheeks smudged with rose, light freckles, ruby red lips, woolly nut-brown sweaters, and grey tweed jackets. They’re as satisfying to watch as a nineteenth century oil painting. Also, English children in movies like this are always preferable to their American counterparts. Whereas the latter show equal delight to the fantastic and the banal, like promiscuous dogs sniffing the interior of a strange car, these cherubic Britons can be counted on to carry themselves in quiet wonderment until it’s time to show their steely British resolve.
Such resolve must be handy for English kids right around breakfast time, but in Narnia they also need it for armies of orcs and centaurs and wolves and—oh, let’s just say it: “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” The fauna underwhelms. The scariest it gets is a shot of fever-eyed wolves pawing the ground. Very quickly it’s apparent that “Narnia” doesn’t have the chops to compete with its high-concept predecessors. Lewis’ fuzzy creatures simply aren’t as clever as L. Frank Baum’s or Lewis Carroll’s, and needless to say they are far less imposing than J.R.R. Tolkien’s. Sorry, but we can’t go back; snarling dogs will never surpass hooded undead knights that shriek like banshees.
The whole charm bit is underwhelming, too, largely thanks to a strange literal-mindedness. For instance, two friends of the children are beavers. They are called Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, in fact. They probably live in Beaver House on Beaver Way in Beavershire. The wolf is just Wolf, and the fox is just Fox; at least they filmmakers had the good sense to leave out Cartoon Tie-In and Happy Meal Surprise.
To be fair, the problem really isn’t with Lewis’ characters. He wrote a simple fairy tale for children and in the books Narnia is enchanting enough. When the portal into a fairy land is a common wardrobe, you know from the start that no matter where he takes us, the writer’s primary muse is the everyday world.
No, the culprit here is Disney’s special effects. A realistic-looking character named Beaver or Fox or Wolf needs the touch of a gifted animator to bring to life, as well as a good voice. The voice actors in “Narnia” are certainly up to par, but the CGI cast assembled to play opposite the human leads are a mess. The animations are so bad they must have been stolen, half-finished, from the hard drives of the animators in the dead of night. The Beavers resemble brown smudges that appear about as furry as eggs. The wolves look like 1940’s-era cartoons, lacking almost any realism in form or movement. Scenery is mostly low-res, and I have seen better battle scenes on my old Commodore 64. So horrendous are these effects that they undercut the actors in every scene. Poor Tilda Swinton looks like she’s being led around in a wheelbarrow in someone’s backyard.
Then there’s Aslan the lion. Admittedly, the majority of the dollars that were in the meager F/X budget were spent to make the lion look decently passable, but, as Lewis himself once said he feared, the talking lion is unconvincing at best and laugh-out-loud goofy at worst. (And with Liam Neeson voicing the beast I kept waiting for Aslan to sit the children down and explain midichlorians.) Not that any of this matters. By the time Aslan appears onscreen the movie has deteriorated beyond repair. The visuals are so shoddy that any attempts at epic scale and fantasy-kingdom nobility fall well short of the mark. I hope these kids can save the world, but they'd better start with the the animation department first.