This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1988)
Written by C.S. Lewis & Alan Seymour
Directed by Marilyn Fox
I remember having the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia read aloud to me around seven or eight. It was my first introduction to C.S. Lewis’ series and immediately piqued my interest. A couple years later, this British television mini-series aired on PBS’ Wonderworks, a children’s anthology, and I was pulled in right away. While it doesn’t compare to the lavish production values of 1980s blockbusters, it did make me feel like I was passing into another world. Narnia felt very real and honestly very frightening. The series does not hold back on some terrifying imagery for a little kid. Many years passed before I rewatched it and what I found was that, while very faithful to the book, it does not hold up from an adult perspective.
If you aren’t familiar, the four Pevensie siblings (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy) are sent off to the English countryside with many other children to avoid the blitz of London during World War II. This quartet ends up in the home of Professor Kirke, a kindly but ditzy old man. Unfortunately, the housekeeper is not so kind, so the children try to avoid her. One day, while playing hide and seek in the vast mansion, Lucy slips into a wardrobe only to find it continues on and opens into a strange snow-covered world. She meets a faun, Mr. Tumnus, who is amazed to see a human in these lands. Unfortunately, the White Witch is in charge, and she’s created eternal winter, turning anyone who rises up against her into stone. Lucy’s siblings don’t believe her when she returns, but they find themselves going through the wardrobe into Narnia days later. The Pevensies learn that the only way to defeat the White Witch is to help Aslan, the mythic lion of Narnia, rise up and retake the land.
There’s a lot about the production that is quite charming. The opening titles, a camera floating over an animated map of Narnia, are very well done, and the theme music certainly sets the tone. The whole score of the production is excellent, with the heroic music hitting just the right notes and the creepier cues eliciting goosebumps. One thing you cannot argue is that this adaptation isn’t faithful to the novel. It adheres to every plot beat and development almost to a fault. That’s where the problems come in because, despite the filmmakers’ ambitions, they did not have the budget to pull this off in a satisfying manner.
It becomes glaringly apparent when the talking animals and monsters start appearing. For some, like Mr. Tumnus, it’s not too bad because he is part human in appearance. However, the Beavers barely work and feel more like a children’s theater production. The White Witch’s wolf guard is another character who comes across as goofy rather than scary as he should be. Later, we get a mix of live-action and animation during the stone table sequence that will likely frighten a child, but I couldn’t imagine an adult having the same experience. I was impressed by the Aslan puppet, a full-size male lion whose scale is imposing. Unfortunately, the mouth cannot contort to the dialogue and just opens and closes while Aslan speaks. I almost wish they had taken some artistic license and had his words exist as telepathy.
The acting is a mixed bag, with some performers playing it straight and others seemingly coming straight out of English pantomime. I thought Jeffrey Perry did well as Mr. Tumnus, one of the more vital roles in the story. Barbara Kellerman is acting her ass off as The White Witch, delivering one of the more children’s theater-style performances. I was definitely terrified of her as a kid, but as an adult found a lot of her gestures and proclamations funny. I get the sense this was intentional, a bit of tongue-in-cheek exaggeration. The children’s performances are fine; you can’t expect something mind-blowing when it comes to kid actors. I think each actor captures the essence of their character from the book. The weak link is likely Susan, a character who doesn’t seem to have a distinct identity compared to the other three.
The entire series is available to watch for free on YouTube, and if it was something you loved as a child and want to share with your own, I think they would enjoy it. However, it did leave me interested in revisiting the 2005 theatrical release to see if the added production value made the story better or worse. There is something very quaint about the low budget of the BBC production.