The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Nazi Blitzkrieg rages over London and the Pevensie children – Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) – like many, are being shipped to the country for safety. The kids arrive at the manor of solitary Professor Kirk (Jim Broadbent), an old bachelor under the attentive care of his housekeeper, Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne). Bad weather keeps the children inside, bored, and Lucy convinces her older brothers and sister to play a game of hide and seek. She finds a near empty room with an old wardrobe at one end and decides to hide there. This begins the magic of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Laura's Review: A-

After surviving several bombing attacks during London's Blitz, Mrs. Pevensie (Judy McIntosh, "Kingpin") entrusts her eldest, Peter (William Moseley, a John-Boy Walton by way of the von Trapp family type), with the care of his three younger siblings as she sends them off to safer ground in the English countryside. They're taken in by a bachelor professor (Jim Broadbent, "Robots") who lives on a huge estate just perfect for games of hide and seek. Looking for a hiding spot, the youngest Pevensie, Lucy (Georgie Henley) finds more than she bargained for when the back of a wardrobe opens into another world in the first book of the classic C.S. Lewis series, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Cowriter (with Ann Peacock and "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely)/director Andrew Adamson ("Shrek," "Shrek 2") takes something old and makes it new again with this glorious adaptation of the well-loved children's tale. There is no mistaking author Lewis's allegory - in fact, this could be considered Disney's bloodless version of "The Passion" - but couching these lessons of sacrifice and forgiveness in a magical world where animals talk and fauns frolic was an inspired way to appeal to the child in all of us. This second Brit kid lit special effects extravaganza of the holiday season should be no less a must-see than Harry and hopefully, like that series, will see all seven of its books brought to the big screen. It's the second eldest Pevensie, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), who provides the internal drama which will play out in Narnia. While little Lucy is lucky enough to encounter Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy, "Rory O'Shea Was Here"), a faun brave enough to hide her from the White Witch (Tilda Swinton, in quite the reverse from "Constantine's" Angel Gabriel), Edmund runs into the fearsome lady herself and promises to deliver his siblings to her distant castle. Edmund also refuses to confirm Lucy's story about the wardrobe, but before too long, the portal to Narnia opens for all four, because it is all four who are prophesied to go into battle with the majestic lion Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson, "Kingdom of Heaven") and defeat the Witch's evil reign of constant winter. When the Pevensies are brought home by a beaver (Ray Winstone, "King Arthur"), Edmund spies the castle in the distance and skulks off in quest of more of the Turkish Delight the witch can conjure up and he betrays Peter, Susan (Anna Popplewell, "Girl with a Pearl Earring") and Lucy's whereabouts as well as Mr. Tumnus's defiant act. Pursued by the witch's wolves, the three Pevensies and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Dawn French, comedy partner of "Absolutely Fabulous's" Jennifer Saunders) make their way towards Aslan's camp, receiving gifts from Father Christmas (James Cosmo, "Troy") during their journey that will aid them on the battlefield. But on the eve of the fight that will determine Narnia's fate, Aslan makes the ultimate sacrifice to pay for Edmund's sins and it is up to Peter to lead Aslan's troops and defeat the black hordes of the White Witch. Visual effects supervisor Dean Wright ("The Lord of the Rings") led a huge team to produce amazingly realistic looking and expressive talking animals with computer imagery and blended those digital effects with make up prosthetics so that actors' torsos would sit believably atop the bodies of goats and horses. Mr. Tumnus is simply one of the most jaw-dropping cinematic creatures invented yet, a stunning mix of filmmaking wizardry and McAvoy's soulful and physical thesping. Aslan looks like a humanized lion and Neeson completes the character with terrific vocal work. Also beautifully realized are those beavers, full of character and a fox of surprising nature voiced by Rupert Everett ("Separate Lies"). Playing Edmund's steed, producer Philip Steuer gets a lot of mileage just announcing his name. The kids, the result of a two-year casting process and 2,000 interviews, couldn't be more perfect for their roles, with young Henly providing the heart of the piece. Swinton is cold as ice, a shrewd manipulator devoid of soul. In smaller roles, Elizabeth Hawthorne ("The Frighteners") and Broadbent are the semi-strict housekeeper Mrs. MacReady and the fussed over professor with the boyish temperament who sits in for the storyteller himself. Adamson and production designer Roger Ford ("Peter Pan") have created a much brighter, more beautiful place than the earthy "Lord of the Rings" terrain, where, like "The Wizard of Oz's" switch from black and white to color, warms from the crystalline twinkling of snow and ice to lush, sunny grassy greens. Cinematographer Don McAlpine ("Peter Pan") makes this manufactured land feel organic, with the story's iconic gas lantern glowing in the snow like the warmest holiday greeting. Isis Mussenden's ("Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights") costuming is beautiful, not only for the extravagant dressing of the Witch, but in the simple yet evocative WWII period clothing of the children. War torn Europe fueled not only this classic tale of good and evil, but also J.J.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but Adamson's "Narnia" is possessed of more of an innocence and sense of wonder that the latter "Rings" films which may prove a better tonic for the bruised sensibilities of today's terrorism laden landscape. And while "Narnia" is sure to be the subject of backlash for its overt Christian allegory, perhaps even being branded as a 'Red State' film, I would ask what's so bad about teaching goodness, a quality which should transcend both religion and politics?

Robin's Review: B-

The French meet "School of Rock" in this period piece, set in 1949 France, about an out of work musician who takes the job as Supervisor at a rural school for problem boys. Here, in typical Gallic style by helmer Christophe Barratier (working from his script co-written with Philippe Lopes-Curval), we have a dysfunctional school strictly overseen by Le Director Rachin, a hard-hearted and brutish martinet who would rather punish his wards than educate them. Enter Clement Mathieu, a former musician and composer who abandoned his unsuccessful calling to take the job as a lowly supervisor at the Fond de l'Etang school for troubled and orphaned boys. He is shocked by Rachin's often-cruel treatment of the young students for any number of infractions and, early on, decides that he will teach and treat his pupils his own way - regardless of the director's policies. But, these are tough kids conditioned by the harsh punishments by Rachin and their first reaction to their new teacher is to nickname him "Baldy" and "Bullet-head" and immediately begin to badger Mathieu. When the rowdy class attracts the director's attention it looks like the disciplinarian will rule. Clement, though, covers up for his students' infractions and a spark of respect and admiration is ignited in the boys, except from problematic Pierre Monhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), who the Rachin deems "a devil with the face of an angel." As Mathieu insinuates himself into his students' new-found trust he decides to introduce something new to them, something the teacher knows and loves - music. He forms his reluctant charges into a choir, of sorts, placing them into vocal groups of alto, tenor, soprano and basso. His main opponent is the sullen and withdrawn Pierre, a boy fearing abandonment by his pretty, single, working mother, Violet (Marie Bunel). Pierre has a voice to match his angelic good looks and Clement is fast to overcome the boy's psychological obstacles and recruits him as the choir's soloist. Pierre is such a talented singer that Mathieu pulls what meager strings he can to get the lad an audition at a prestigious music school. As if the challenges Clement faces aren't enough - unruly students, a closed-minded/closed-hearted boss, depressing environment, loneliness - the filmmakers introduce yet another stumbling block with the introduction, to the school, of Mondain (Gregory Gatignol). The cigarette-smoking, rule-breaking boy is sent to Fond de l'Etang to see if disciplinarian Rachin can change Mondain's wicked ways. He can't and jumps at the chance to accuse the boy of theft and have him sent away to real incarceration - which makes for one of the film's "huh?" moments later on. "Derivative" could be the word to describe "The Chorus." Besides "School of Rock," direct comparison can be made to such other notable films as "The Blackboard Jungle (1955)," "To Sir, with Love (1967)" "Mr. Holland's Opus (1995), "The 400 Blows (1959)" and, even, "Cinema Paradiso (1989)." But, the "nice" screenplay for "The Chorus" makes this derivativeness take a back seat to the story of a man of kindness and compassion who has the true desire to teach his students and, in the case of golden-voiced Pierre, help them to break away from the sometimes staggering oppression of the reform school and its headmaster. "Acting" is pretty much relegated to the adult performers in "The Chorus." Popular French comedian Gerard Jugnot gives a sweet, endearing performance as musically inclined Mathieu. He immediately puts himself in a position, once in the classroom, to gain the trust of his students despite the interfering intolerance of the headmaster. We've seen the character plenty of times in the past (just check out the titles I mentioned earlier in this review) but Jugnot makes it his own here. Francois Berleand gives a mustache twirling, bad guy performance as the headmaster who blames his charges and not himself for his position in life. His tyrant of a school director is one-dimensional, except for a misspent attempt to humanize the man, but this is what the film calls for. The boys of the choir are non-actors and aren't called upon to do much but look cute, tough, troubled or dysfunctional. Maunier, as Pierre, is the principle character among the kids but an experienced young actor would have better served the role. The boy does have a golden throat, though. Barratier and Lopes-Curval's screenplay makes no new statements and walks upon well trodden territory but the heartfelt nature of the story and the sheer niceness of the main character, Clement, make it a cut above the ordinary and routine. The music, some of it original and composed by the helmer, helps to raise the bar, too. While I could not find a reference to it in the press and promo material for "The Chorus," the plot is also a dead ringer for that of the 1945 French film, "A Cage of Nightingales," right down to the storyline and the names and personalities of the lead characters Mathieu and Rachin. "The Chorus" has entered the pantheon, in France, as one of the top grossing films ever. It comes close, at times, to overt sentimentality, but walks that tightrope with deftness that keeps it from being a teary-eye soap opera. Instead, it tells of an intelligent, caring man who uses his inherent kindness to reach and help his wards despite the obstacles he and they must face every day.