The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Review
It's 1940 and having been evacuated from London because of the air-raids, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, aged between 14 and 8, are staying with the elderly Professor Kirke in his aging mansion. Whilst it rains outside, the children explore the house and Lucy finds a room that is empty but for an old wardrobe, which she climbs into. Passing by some fur coats that are hanging there, she comes upon a wintry forest with a lamp post at a clearing in the centre. As she marvels at this sight, a fawn, Mr Tumnus, appears and takes Lucy back to his cave, where he reveals to her the history of Narnia and how the White Witch changed it from being a beautiful, sunlit land into one that now remains under a permanent bed of snow. Taking Lucy back to the lamp post, she finds her way back through the wardrobe to the empty room to tell Peter, Susan and Edmund of her adventure. But despite the passing of hours in Narnia, she had been gone less than a minute in the real world.
Lucy's brothers and sister, though, do not believe her stories of Narnia and Edmund, in particular, takes pleasure in teasing her. A few days later, though, during a game of hide and seek, Edmund follows Lucy through the wardrobe into Narnia but sees neither his sister nor Mr Tumnus. Instead, he meets the White Witch who promises him Turkish Delight should he convince his brother and sisters to come with him next time. Meeting Lucy by the lamp post, Edmund takes his sister back to the house where he denies having been to Narnia, telling Peter that it was just a joke he was playing on Lucy.
But as the days pass and Lucy returns to Narnia, Edmund, Peter and Susan all travel through the wardrobe where they find their younger sister and that Mr Tumnus has been arrested by the White Witch's secret police for treason. As Lucy convinces them that they should rescue him, they learn more about Narnia and that there is a prophecy concerning the return of Aslan the lion and how two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve defeat the White Witch. Edmund, though, has little but Turkish Delight on his mind but soon, that is but a trifling matter as a battle wages for all of Narnia...
In reviewing the recent DVD release of Watership Down, I mentioned that it was one of a small number of animated features that I remember being on television during the seventies, a time when few Disney animated were being broadcast. Others that I remembered were Ralph Bakshi's The Lord Of The Rings and this, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Indeed, I suspect that there are few aged thirty or thereabouts who haven't seen this at one time or another and who may well have fond memories of it. Or indeed, terrifying ones concerning the fate of Aslan.
I was surprised, therefore, on receiving this DVD that this version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, unlike the one that is due to be released in the coming month or so, was made for television and not the cinemas. Produced by the Children's Television Workshop, who also make Sesame Street, this was broadcast over two nights in April 1979 on US television, sponsored by Kraft who were promoting a reading program, with The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe being used to impress upon children that they ought to watch less television and read more. The BBC must have picked it up soon after and it began appearing on British television during, I believe, the early-eighties but with no such higher minded motives, it simply became the only version that, growing up, we would have been familiar with until the BBC later produced their own, live-action series based on CS Lewis' original story. This later became part of a series of television shows based on The Chronicles of Narnia but The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe remains the most famous.
Time, though, can play tricks on one's memory and a viewing of this film on ITV during December 2003 left me surprised at the quality of the animation. It's not that it's particularly poor, more that I thought it was much better, closer to a Disney production than what it actually is. As Steven Melendez explains, though, there were good reasons for the appearance of the film - the Children's Televion Workshop had contracted another studio to produce the film but after two years had decided to pass on the project. Melendez was contacted and with his father, Bill Melendez, they began work on the film but with the broadcast dates being fixed, had only nine months to complete the film. That they managed this at all is testament to the effort that they put into the production but the rush to complete the film frequently shows in the animation. There are times, for example, in which a character seems to simply disappear off the edge of the screen and whilst it isn't that the animation isn't detailed but more that it lacks expressiveness. In a week when we've been watching The Fox And The Hound, in which Disney made Tod and Copper more human than the trigger-happy Amos, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe compares badly with four human characters that have a functional set of facial expressions. Elsewhere, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy all suffer from the things that are commonplace in television animation - lots of arm and body movements but a lack of voice/lip synch - whilst the fashions, late-seventies polo neck jumpers, make the film look older than it actually is.
That said, the early scenes work best and these were animated by Nick Spargo (Willo The Wisp) in his London studio, working up to a point where Mr Beaver appears to the children in Narnia. It's largely because of these scenes, in which Narnia is in the throes of a very peaceful winter, that The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe has become a staple of Christmas television. Optimum clearly understand this as the menu screen with its flurry of snowflakes and excerpt from the film's orchestral score, is an early burst of Christmastime and it's this spirit that is the film's greatest success. In particular, the shot of the dim light from the lamp in the middle of the Narnia wood where the children arrive from the real world is a beautifully understated moment. If the rest of the film doesn't live up to Spargo's early section, it's largely because that feeling of strangeness and of loneliness, shown to best effect with Lucy's arrival in Narnia, is soon put to one side in favour of the battle for Narnia between Aslan and the children and the forces of the White Witch.
It is, though, a faithful adaptation of the book with Melendez not leaving anything out in terms of Lewis' use of Christian symbolism. We have, therefore, the Deep Magic and Deeper Magic as parallels of the Old and New Testaments, of Aslan's resurrection mirroring that of Jesus and with Edmund and Peter cast as Judas and Peter, respectively. Little of this is made particularly clear and, with the exception of Aslan returning from the dead, you would have to have more than a passing knowledge of Christianity to identify all that Lewis was intending. Philip Pullman has, though, recently caused a small amount of controversy by suggesting that there isn't quite enough Christianity in the books and although there is much symbolism, there is precious little understanding, love and forgiveness. An example of this is the manner in which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy all return home to the real world. As they approach adulthood, the search for the White Stag results in them stumbling upon the lamp that had remained lit in the clearing in the forest and, purely by accident, the four pass through the wardrobe where they return to Professor Kirke's mansion, the same age as they were when they first entered Narnia. The suggestion is that by reaching adulthood, they are somewhat tainted and that they must return home to regain their childish innocence. Like the books of Enid Blyton, those of CS Lewis have now been reappraised and are accused of being sexist and racist but little of that comes across in this rather simplified telling of the story.
That final sequence of the hunting of the White Stag is, though, as beautifully constructed as those of Nick Spargo that open the film. The combination of the music and the occasional glimpse of the White Stag all suggest that the film is coming to an end and that it will soon be time for Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy to return home. I don't doubt that the forthcoming film will be more than a match for this film but as a nostalgic trip back in time to a Christmas afternoon of your youth, this is hard to beat. For those coming to it without such memories, this may not impress as much as this year's Disney production might.
This isn't a bad transfer but, equally, it's not a great one and much print damage remains on the film as presented on this DVD. Whilst its difficult to tell that it exists were you only to look at the characters, I would advise you, if you have a copy of this, to spend some time looking carefully at the backgrounds within which the damage is more obvious. At other times, though, any fault that you might imagine lies with the DVD is more likely to have come from the source print. There has always been, as far as I can remember, a certain softness about The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, which this DVD doesn't do much to disguise. Otherwise, though, it's not bad but it's far from being a particularly good release.
The stereo soundtrack is, though, more than adequate despite the presence of some background noise that's noticeable during quieter scenes. There is not much panning between the left and right speakers and what there is is handled rather clumsily but it's a match both for the visuals and for the film and such complaints as those listed sound more like nitpicking than actual faults.
Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery: Beards were clearly in in 1978, at least in animation studios as this collection of thirty-six behind-the-scenes still images show. Bill Melendez features quite a bit, as does Steven but there are occasional glimpses of members of the voice cast.
Original Storyboard (1m16s): Taking the scene in which Lucy and Susan mourn the death of Aslan before he is resurrected, this feature, which is now commonplace on DVD releases of animated films, compares the final version of the scene with the original and quite detailed storyboards.
Character Designs: As Steven Melendez says in the commentary and in the interview with him on this DVD, there was a great deal of character design work produced during the making of the film that was discarded when the copyright holders said that they didn't like what had been done. Much of that work is included here, with sixty-three still images showing how the design of the film went from being very different to what we know of in the final version of the film.
Deleted Sequence (1m45s): Following their defeat of the White Witch, this sequence - Kings & Queens of Narnia - was to create a bridge between us seeing Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy as children and as adults, when they ruled Narnia. In the film, this is reduced to a voiceover, which links Aslan's leaving with the arrival of Mr Tumnus to announce that the white stag has been seen in Narnia and whilst this deleted sequence doesn't add very much, it's good to have it here on this DVD.
Interview With Steven Melendez (11m38s): The producer of the film, who is the son of director Bill Melendez, talks about the problems he encountered during the production of the film, including the manner in which he became involved, the immovable dates that he had to work against and the problems that he had in managing four animation studios - two in London, one in Barcelona and one in Los Angeles. Melendez has a good memory but is vague on details, preferring to discuss aspects of the production only briefly.
Commentary: Bill and Steven Melendez and Sequence Director Bob Balser have contributed this feature length commentary that duplicates some of what Steven Melendez mentions in the interview that is also included on this DVD but does so with much greater depth. They do spend much of the commentary explaining how the production of the film was split between multiple studios and although it's never dull, there are a lot of gaps in their talking as the film progresses. Indeed, at one point I was reduced to checking if I had selected this commentary out of the two audio tracks available.
And I've left the greatest question to last...is this the version of the film with English cast members or American. For those of you wondering why this question should arise, the US broadcast of the film has American cast members whilst, in the UK, we have grown up with Arthur Lowe amongst others. You'll be pleased to note that this DVD features the version of the film with British voice actors and so fits seamlessly into ideas of nostalgia.
The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe will, I suspect, be shooed into the past come the release of the live-action version this December but for a film that was produced only for television, it's had a great deal of attention for a long time. I'll still go back to it on occasion - my memories of it being that powerful - but I doubt if it will appeal to many.