As though a two-disc special edition were not enough, the Disney studios now offer a super set with what may be the longest title for any release on DVD: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Four-Disc Extended Edition." Well, you've got to have a big title for a big set, and this one rivals the extended versions of "The Lord of the Rings," with a few more minutes of movie and several additional discs of bonus materials. Whew!
C.S. Lewis began publishing his fantasy series "The Chronicles of Narnia" in the early 1950s, shortly before his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien published "The Lord of the Rings." You'd expect the books to be similar, and in many ways they are. Yet "The Chronicles of Narnia" became children's classics almost immediately, while "The Lord of the Rings" books didn't really take off until they were published in paperback a decade later and college students the world over took them up.
Clearly, "The Chronicles of Narnia" books, especially the second entry in the series, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which was published first, incidentally, were designed for children, with children as their main characters, just as Tolkien's earlier "Hobbit" had been meant primarily for his own children. But just as clearly, Lewis's "Chronicles" also appeals to adults, as Tolkien's more adult-oriented "Rings" also appeals to children. It's a nice reciprocal arrangement whereby everyone is pleased by both collections. Even those of a religious bent will have fun with Lewis's brawny, unabashed brand of Christianity, his story a poignant allegory of Heaven and Earth, love, trust, betrayal, forgiveness, salvation, redemption, and self-sacrifice, with the forces of good doing battle against and triumphing over the forces of evil. The movie never shies away from the author's Christian symbolism.
Early on, filmmakers were tempted to adapt the Lewis and Tolkien novels for the screen, but the lavish canvasses both authors had created for their epics proved too daunting for most producers and directors to undertake. Animation seemed the only viable alternative in the days before computer graphic imagery, so the works of Lewis and Tolkien first came to the screen via cartoons. Later, there were several television productions of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Prince Caspian," "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," and "The Silver Chair," other books in the Lewis saga, but none of these early movie versions were entirely satisfactory.
Then came Peter Jackson's production of "The Lord of the Rings," and everything changed. Their vast scope, stunning graphics, and CGI cast of thousands proved that even the most elaborate literary fantasies could successfully be tailored to the screen in all their sweep and glory. Thus did Disney undertake the daunting task of fashioning "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," possibly the most intricate and sumptuous of the Lewis books, into a 2005 movie release. To say the studio succeeded is an understatement; it's one of the best things the Disney folks have ever done. The movie may not have the intensely dark, sinister, tumultuous appeal of Tolkien's "Rings," but, remember, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was never intended to satisfy an adult's longing for imaginary verisimilitude. It is a children's fairy tale, as Lewis called it, that just happens to have enough elevated spirituality, drama, humor, inspiration, and invention to appeal to many adults.
"The Chronicles of Narnia" is a kinder, gentler world than Tolkien's "Rings," but not by much. Both Lewis and Tolkien painted pictures based on their own horrific experiences in the First World War and on the circumstances of the Second World War, together with their rigorous moral and religious convictions, to create the universes of Narnia and Middle Earth. Lewis's main characters are children, younger than Tolkien's hobbits, elves, and dwarfs, and as such are never placed in quite as much mortal danger as the protagonists in "The Rings." This initially lead me to worry about a big-screen rendering of the story, especially when I heard that Disney was going to do it, because the story contains a good deal of sentiment, and there was every chance the result might have become cloyingly sweet. The books themselves come dangerously close on occasion. Moreover, the movie's director, Andrew Adamson, had previously made only two theatrical releases, the animated "Shrek" and "Shrek 2," both filled with satire and barbed wit but not a lot of personal emotion. Fortunately, no such problems develop. The movie maintains all the mystery, feeling, mystique, danger, and adventure of the "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" novel on which it is based, without any excessive preaching and without talking down to its audience.
Comparisons, then, are inevitable but futile. Take "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" for what it is: a fascinating, visually compelling, and totally engrossing adaptation of a well-loved classic.
Narnia, for those of you who somehow missed the books, is a land that exists in another time and dimension. The four children of the story, a family of two brothers and two sisters, are living in the country with an eccentric old professor (Jim Broadbent) in his rambling country estate to escape the air raids over London during WWII. It's through a wardrobe closet in this old house that they stumble upon an entrance to Narnia, a land enchanted by our standards, to be sure. It is peopled by talking animals, Fauns, Centaurs, Nymphs, Giants, Dwarfs, and Witches. And when you leave the place, no matter how many years you've stayed there, when you return to your own world no time will have gone by, and you are exactly the same age as when you left.
The four young people are the Pevensies. The oldest is Peter (William Moseley). The most logical is Susan (Anna Popplewell). The most wayward is Edmund (Skandar Keynes). And the youngest is Lucy (Georgie Henley). They are all wonderfully performed by the juvenile actors, but Ms. Henley is particularly noteworthy. As the most youthful Pevensie, she is also the most persuasive, and while the eldest of the children, Peter, may be the leading character, it is Lucy whom you will no doubt remember best.
Once in Narnia, the children learn that for a hundred years it has been under the spell of an evil Witch--brilliantly and icily portrayed by Tilda Swinton--who has made the country into a perpetual winter from which only the children can save it. An ancient prophecy foretells of the children's coming and their eventual rule over the land. The children also learn of Aslan, the legendary lion king of Narnia (voiced by Liam Neeson), who comes when he is needed to all who believe in him. In addition, they meet the captivating Faun, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy); the equally delightful Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Ray Winstone and Dawn French); the wily Mr. Fox (Rupert Everett); and the satisfying Father Christmas (James Cosmo).
I have to admit the film moved the Wife-O-Meter and me a good deal more than its trailers had led us to expect it would. It is grand filmmaking on the grandest scale, intimate in its opening scenes with the children and spectacular in its closing scenes of battle. Despite its present extended, 155-minute running time, nowhere does the pace slacken, and nowhere is the viewer left out of the story. I was a little disappointed in the music, the background score somewhat less than exhilarating and at times a little too gushy, but that was about my only concern. The CGI, animatronics, creature design, makeup (for which it won an Academy Award), lighting, matte paintings, and other special visual effects are convincing without ever overpowering the storyline. The location shooting in New Zealand, Guatemala, Poland, and the Czech Republic are on an imposing scale; the script sticks closely to the book; and, as I've said, the acting is splendid throughout. This is a beautiful picture and a joy to behold.
Wait for it. There is a touch of grain in some of the opening nighttime shots, like the bombing scenes of London and the vast expanses of Narnia's snow. Plus, there is occasionally a bit of glassiness to facial tones. That said, the image becomes clearer, brighter, and sharper as the ice melts and the picture gives way to the rebirth of the countryside. Then we see that this high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer contains excellent definition, rich colors, natural tints, and fine detailing. The film's original 2.35:1 dimensions are preserved in only slightly reduced form, measuring a ratio about 2.18:1 across my widescreen HD television, the video quality doing justice to the movie's visual delights.
The audio engineers at BV were also up to the task of reproducing the sound in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround. The sonics are well balanced and warmly characterized, with a strong impact, a realistic midrange, wide dynamics, taut bass, and well-extended highs. The directional effects in the surrounds add a note of excitement to almost every scene, yet they never impinge on one's enjoyment of the story by calling attention to themselves.
Disc one of this four-disc special edition contains the expanded feature presentation and several other items. The extended movie is about 150 minutes long, almost eight minutes longer than the theatrical version, the additions coming mainly in very small bits and pieces along the way, with further special effects and some augmented shots in the climactic battle sequence. I'm not sure that people will even notice the added shots in a two-and-a-half-hour film, but the new material certainly does no harm.
The next items on disc one are repeated from the first disc of the earlier two-disc set. They include a pair of audio commentaries, one with director Andrew Adamson and the four children stars--William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, and Georgie Henley; and a second with the production team of director Adamson, production designer Roger Ford, and producer Mark Johnson. Then, there are "Discover Narnia" fun facts, pop-up pieces of information from co-producer Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C.S. Lewis. I wish there had been more of them, though. Plus, a little over four minutes of cute bloopers, twenty-four scene selections, and Sneak Peeks at several other Disney products, including a look at some of the studio's upcoming Blu-ray titles. The disc provides English, French, and Spanish as spoken languages, with French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The second disc duplicates the extras found on the second disc of the previous two-disc set, the materials divided into two groups. The first category is called "Creating Narnia." Here, you'll find "Chronicles of a Director," a thirty-seven-minute documentary. Then, there's "The Children's Magical Journey," twenty-six minutes on the young stars, "Evolution of an Epic," which includes "C.S. Lewis, From One Man's Mind," "Cinematic Storytellers" (eight chapters), "Creating Creatures" (eleven chapters), and "Anatomy of a Scene: The Melting River." Of the various chapter segments, I enjoyed "Creating Creatures" best, two-to-nine minute passages that show us how the various creatures in the film were designed, made-up, and costumed.
The second category is "Creatures, Land, and Legends." Here, we find "Creatures of the World" (eleven chapters), more background on the assorted mythological beings in the film, and "Explore Narnia," a map of the country whereon one can highlight different locations and get information and pictorial descriptions of the places. I counted five locations, but there may be more I overlooked. Finally, there is "Legends in Time," a timeline to the events in the story, with audio narration. As always with a Disney special-edition DVD, getting through the many extras requires a good deal of clicking around.
On disc three you will find only one item, yet it is probably the best of all the extras. It's "C.S. Lewis: The Dreamer of Narnia," an all-new, feature-length film from Disney. This fascinating biography reveals elements of Lewis's childhood, his education, his First World War experiences, his shifting religious convictions, his books, and some of the inspirations for his writing, as told by relatives, friends, scholars, fellow authors, and fans. The documentary lasts about seventy-five minutes, is divided into eight chapters, and sizes out at 1.78:1, with French subtitles and 2.0 stereo sound.
Disc four contains three new items, the first of which is "Visualizing The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: The Complete Production Experience," a lengthy, behind-the-scenes affair with the filmmakers. It's almost two-and-a-half hours long (142 minutes, to be exact) and divided into seven chapters, including the producer's introduction, but, oddly, there is no on-screen list of scene selections. This documentary is presented imaginatively in complete screens and multiple-screen inserts, quite colorful, actually. The second item is "Anatomy of a Scene: Behind the Battle," seven minutes detailing the construction of the climactic battle; and the third item is an "Art of Narnia Gallery," in three sections: Concept Art, Landscapes, and Maquettes (maquettes are small, three-dimensional models, prototypes for the CGI creatures).
The four discs come housed in a foldout case, further enclosed in an attractive, metal-foil slipcover.
J.R.R. Tolkien never cared for his friend Lewis's "Narnia" books and told him so. Tolkien did not think it was appropriate for Lewis to throw around so many different mythological creatures willy-nilly as he did. But Lewis's books caught on sooner than Tolkien's, and today the two fantasy series are equally well respected. Yes, Tolkien is more sophisticated and more mature, but Lewis has the advantage of innocence and simplicity.
C.S. Lewis dedicated "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield, as follows: "My dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather, C.S. Lewis."