Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Long-Awaited DVD, Special Edition

The measure of any film’s success as entertainment is largely subjective, and yet objective means of measurement do exist: boxoffice figures, as well as the length of a given film’s theatrical run, certainly testify to a film’s ability to entertain. Granted, these methods can sometimes be misleading, but they do provide at least some standard of evaluating a film’s ability to captivate an audience.

And here’s where we must eat some crow.

Disc 1: The Movie
Andrew Adamson’s adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, demonstrating the “legs” that we had publically doubted in our reviews at the time the film was released, was still playing in suburban American theaters nearly four months following its initial December 9, 2005 release, racking up over $290 million in U.S. boxoffice receipts—a dead tie with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was released three weeks earlier. In the wider international market, the Narnia film repeatedly claimed the number one spot in weekend boxoffice receipts, its final high-water mark coming the first week of March 2006, just after its opening weekend in Japan and during its final market debut in China. At that point, its total receipts stood at $669 million (compared to Harry Potter’s $891 million)—not the international boxoffice king, but a solid blockbuster in a slumping film market nonetheless. Not only has the film become the highest-grossing “live-action” release in Disney’s distribution history, it is now also the all-time boxoffice champ for any Disney release in the UK, beating out Toy Story 2.

If C. S. Lewis’s Narnian tales have historically suffered from overexposure, where Adamson succeeds is in getting the exposure just right. Regardless of Lewis’s own confidence in the inability of his Narnia to be successfully adapted for the screen, Adamson’s version (written by Adamson, Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely) comes fully alive in a way that has thus far been entrusted to our literary imaginations. It even manages to erase from our memories the weaker aspects of the BBC TV adaptation and other less-successful efforts. With well-integrated and surprisingly realistic CGI effects (the atomic-bomb Phoenix comes immediately to mind as a fascinating addition to the battle sequence), the film avoids the buffoonery about which Lewis was so concerned. And, of course, the New Zealand vistas add to the sense of other-worldliness that effectively separates Narnia from London.

Adamson’s artistic achievement relies not so heavily on how Lewis wrote the story, but rather how the director himself, as a missionary child, first encountered it. In some cases, Adamson’s memory of his childhood Narnian experience overwhelms Lewis’s story. His preoccupation with the witch’s threatening wolves and the grandeur of battle, for instance, go well beyond Lewis’s original text. There is, however, one specific instance in which Adamson’s own creativity works astonishingly well. The opening sequence, a literarily apocryphal exploration of how the children come to be at the Professor’s house, draws the audience into the story immediately. Adamson’s depiction of the London blitz, the Pevensie’s dazzling flight to their root cellar, and the mother’s wrenching decision to send her four children away for safety’s sake all offer the audience an early opportunity to sympathize with the children in their displacement.

More of such judicious departures from the structure of the written word might have made Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a more interesting and aesthetically satisfying piece. Instead, it seems that the reins on his creativity were perhaps a little too tightly held. Still, for those whose hearts yearn for a steadfastly consistent cinematic reproduction of Lewis’s maiden voyage into Narnia, the movie does not fail.

Perhaps Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, is correct in asserting that adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia cannot help but succeed—in implying that the underlying power of Lewis’s tale is strong enough to withstand Adamson’s overdone game-chases. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does indeed appear to be exceedingly robust. Audiences of all varieties simply can’t seem to get enough of Lewis’s slight, pliant, yet curiously resilient mythic tale.

Disc 1: The Bonus Features
The highlight of any DVD’s bonus material is usually the outakes or the deleted scenes. Sadly, what we’re offered with this release is a blooper reel that’s really just an extended music video that recreates in insider’s look at the fun of moviemaking. Yes, there are a handful of legitimate outakes among these “bloopers,” but for the most part it’s a fond home movie. It conveys the sense of light-hearted, bonded, on-set community that Adamson no doubt established and fostered—but it lacks the sense of spontaneity that usually accompanies outtake reels. It seems too orchestrated, as if it were scripted.

The commentary tracks have just the opposite effect. If anything, they could have used some orchestration. They reveal little of anything in the way of insight. The commentary track with Adamson and the child stars, for instance, is about as interesting as a slumber party. But maybe that’s the point. If only Georgie Henley were a little more subtle than a rugby team...

On the whole, the features on Disc 1 bring us along for the ride, but they do not invite us further up, and further in.

Disc 2: The REAL Bonus Features
Ahh, but then there’s the second disc. If you’re tempted to skip the extra five bucks and go for the single-disc edition, don’t.

We quite frankly expected this disc to be a mere repackaging of the promotional materials prepared in advance of the movie’s release. The pattern set by the Lord of the Rings DVDs, after all, was to include rehashed materials on the initial release and save the good stuff for the Extended Edition release.

Not so here. Yes—it’s pretty clear that Narnia’s extended footage is being pretty jealously guarded, still locked away in some editing room. This release contains very little hint of what may have been filmed but not included in the theatrical version. But the new featurettes produced for Disc 2 are indeed genuinely new. Even those who have been thoroughly saturated in Narnia’s media hype will find things to enjoy and discover.

Here we finally get a chance, in particular, to gain some specific insight into how much of a role Adamson really played in charting the vision for this film—his thinking behind casting, scripting and visualizations. Leading up to the film’s release, we were almost led to believe that Douglas Gresham, or even the dead C. S. Lewis, presided over the production, and that Adamson was just a means to an end. Now we can see that this really was Adamson’s show, and in what ways.

We also get a sense, perhaps, for exactly what made the film work: a chemistry which can’t help but be communicated onscreen. Yes, these relatively inexperienced child actors did indeed relate to each other as siblings, and that comes through in the relationships of their characters; but it was more than that. They truly trusted Adamson and enjoyed working with him, and he with them—and that by design. He drew them out of this world into his Narnia, for the specific purpose of ending its winter and bringing it to life. Through them, Magic has been restored to Narnia. Our windows have been cleaned, and we can once more see clearly what drew us to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the first place.

Who is Aslan? Well, symbolically, he’s supposed to represent Christ, and his voice was provided by Liam Neeson. But for these children, and for this film, Aslan is really Andrew Adamson. He’s the heart of this Narnia, and we’ve finally met him here in these bonus features.