Director Andrew Adamson faced the titanic task of bringing to life the classic C.S. Lewis children's tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. To bring the tale tale of good vs evil in a land of talking animals and fantastic creatures to life, Overall VFX Supervisor Dean Wright assembled a team composed of Rhythm and Hues, Imageworks and ILM among others.
As with any classic tale the most difficult task is how faithful does it need to stay and what changes are necessary to conform with usual film narrative techniques. Not small order for first time live action Director Andrew Adamson, whose experience was in VFX and mainly directing the Shrek franchise. Fortunately Adamson (along with the screenwriters most of which are relatively newcomers as well) seemed to have understood the firmly material and bring it to life as a film that is both accessible to children as well as engaging for adults. The cast includes relative newcomers William Moseley, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes and Anna Popplewell as the Pevensie children, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy and Jim Broadbent as the White Witch, Mr. Tumnus and the Professor respectively, and the voices of Liam Neeson, Ray Winstone, Dawn French and Rupert Everett.
The exotic looking Tilda Swinton gives a stunning performance as the charmingly deadly White Witch, which has submerged the land of Narnia in a 100 year winter. The child actors for the most part carry the film very well, though at times their performance does seem a bit strained when they have to express a whole range of emotions in the same scene. Nevertheless it's thorough them that the audience can experience their journey of self discovery, as each children represents a different facet: Peter, the reluctant hero that must step up, Susan the sometimes over rational sister, Edmund who resents his situation and Lucy the eternal dreamer. The only somewhat out of place moment, probably unintentional guffaw, is that Liam Neeson as Aslan has a few lines which almost seem straight out of Star Wars (I was almost half expecting Yoda or Anakin to show up).
The most impressive aspect of Adamson's work is how he fleshed out the story. One of the filmmakers best decisions involved fleshing out some of the most important elements of the story which are barely mentioned in the source material (which sometimes spends long passages in describing the vistas and plants or the coming of the Spring for example) especially the reason why the Pevensie children are sent away (the bombing of London by the Luftwaffe) or the final confrontation with the White Witch. A few changes are a bit more debatable, as they are meant to introduce a bit more action into the film. While the story is a fairy tale with Christian allegories, the movie never felt preachy at all. It can be in fact just be taken as a classic story of good vs evil and a very engaging one at that.
Veteran VFX producer Dean Wright serves as Overall Supervisor with VFX provided mainly by Rhythm and Hues supervised by Bill Westenhofer with animation supervised by Richard Baneham, Imageworks supervised by Jim Berney with animation supervised by David Schaub and ILM supervised by Scott Farrar with animation supervised by Jenn Emberly. Other contributors included Soho VFX, Studio C, Hatch, Svengali Visual Effects, Digital Dream and Gentle Giant Studios among others.
One of the main problems with these sort of films is how fantastical or real to make all the elements. Should the animals be made as close as possible to their real counterparts or should they be anthropomorphized? Should creatures like centaurs and fauns be made cutesy because being a fairy tale or should design make them feel as real world hybrids? For the most part the design is on the realistic side but with that hint of the fantastical to help sell the story.
Most impressive of all is Aslan himself, the Lion King, wonderfully realized by Rhythm and Hues. At times when he is walking (say a night stroll towards the witch) the effect is so convincing it looks like they just went to a zoo to get footage. One of the problems often associated with talking animals (especially with the bevy of films and TV commercials after Babe) is the over-animation of the mouth or snout which makes the animals look unnatural with incredibly flexing lips. Not so with this film with superb and subtle facial animation of Aslan and also the Beavers (done by Imageworks). At not point you feel that the animal faces are deforming in unwieldy ways but you can still feel their emotions, especially as Aslan express sadness, is stoic, etc. The rest of the creatures which goes from realistic leopards, wolves and bears to fantastic fauns, centaurs, minotaurs and gryphons, all equally done with superb attention to detail.
There were a few issues in the work, a few weaker composites (like the children standing against some backgrounds, for example when they come out of raging river) and at times the witch's castle seems a little out of place in comparison to other environments. Also a couple of shots of an animatronic Aslan on a stone slab contrast a tad with his digital version. Nonetheless the work is superb 99.9% of the time.
The Final Verdict
In the end Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the kind of fantasy movie so rarely seen today (Harry Potter notwithstanding). A poignant tale of self discovery and morality it shares some of the best elements with such classics like The Wizard of Oz, The NeverEnding Story and The Princess Bride. The VFX work of Rhythm and Hues, Imageworks and ILM and the other houses is a visual tour de force especially it fantastic display of creature work.