When I first saw the trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I initially thought I was watching an outtake or spoof of The Lord of the Rings. Epic battles, sweeping vistas, armies of half-animal creatures, good versus evil…then a lion? Oh yeah, that story. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was an elementary-school classic by C.S. Lewis, but it had been years since I’d even thought about it.
The first theatrical trailer hit in the middle of the Lord of the Rings craze, so my initial impression was understandable but quickly clarified. The irony of that impression, though, is that while eventually watching the film in the theaters and, now, watching its release on a two-disc Blu-ray set, I couldn’t help but think yet again of Peter Jackson’s LOTR films. From locations and settings to themes and even length, the first 2.5-hour Narnia film just feels like a missing chapter in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy. The only problem with that is that while comparisons are inevitable, Narnia seldom stacks up to its “competitor.”
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe tells a story that many people have labeled a biblical corollary. Three siblings who are sent to a countryside manor during WWII discover a magical world hidden in the back of a wardrobe, eventually finding themselves lost in said world and consumed by its alternate fantastical reality. Danger soon looms in the form of an ice queen/white witch, with the siblings turning on one another as a “savior” named Aslan — who’s a lion, by the way — sacrifices himself for the sake of his followers. Eventually, Aslan rises from the dead and helps the children lead the forces of good to victory.
Whether Aslan is a Jesus-like character is up to interpretation, but the argument could also be made that Galdalf the Gray upheld the same role in The Lord of the Rings, so let’s call that issue moot. This leaves us with epic battles, incredible CGI, a tale of faith and teamwork, and a cast of largely unknown actors. Hmm, which movie are we talking about again? The comparisons between LOTR and Narnia are undeniable, and while Narnia does an admirable job capturing the flair and realizing a beloved childhood classic on the big screen, Jackson’s epic just has an extra level of polish and better screenplay adaptation.
Of course, one thing The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has over The Lord of the Rings is its appearance on Blu-ray Disc, as New Line has not yet released the LOTR trilogy on Blu-ray. And on this front, Narnia is amazing. The movie is presented in AVC-encoded 1080p, with a bitrate hovering between 22 and 32 Mbps. This fluctuation is more of a technical formality than anything that has an impact on the transfer, as the image quality is incredibly crisp and responsive, even in the most action-packed scenes later in the movie. By far the most impressive visual element, though, is the lack of any perceptible grain in the most snowy scenes. Lesser movies or bad transfers would show some grain against a mostly solid-white field of color, but Narnia is darn near spotless in most scenes. The minor downfall with the high-definition 1080p display is that many of the CGI characters “pop” a bit more than they should. The lighting and animations are all fantastic, but the CG characters’ lack of certain lifelike details gives the film an almost Roger Rabbit-like quality in spots. It’s not a bad thing, but definitely noticeable.
The uncompressed 5.1 audio goes largely underutilized in the first half of the movie, when the majority of the audio track is exposition and dialogue. A few early scenes make good use of the front channels and surrounds, particularly the scenes with wolves, but the best audio is definitely reserved for the latter half of the film, when the Lord of the Rings-worthy battles really get going. Considering there’s a diverse mix of action and audio throughout the film, the high/low balance is a rather nice surprise; you shouldn’t have to adjust the volume the entire time.
As a two-disc release, Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe includes a host of bonus features, most of which are contained on disc two. The first disc, however, does include several. The Bloopers of Narnia (4:35, 480p) is billed as a collection of outtakes, but it’s really more of a compilation of actors goofing off between takes and is largely skippable. Discover Narnia Fun Facts, meanwhile, is a feature-length popup video-like track that begins with historical information during the film’s WWII intro, then expands to cover such things as the original literature, C.S. Lewis’ life and various production aspects. Many Blu-ray releases treat these popup tracks too cavalierly, but Narnia’s are always relevant to the scene at hand and are almost never “throw away” trivia tidbits.
Disc One also includes two different feature-length commentaries, one with the producer and production designer, and a second with the director and the three kids who played the film’s siblings. The commentaries are generally comprised of the traditional fare, with inside information about various production decisions and comical on-set moments. Even after all that, though, the most intriguing element for me was learning that the little girl’s discovery of Narnia in the wardrobe really was a discovery, as the production team blindfolded her before the scene to boost the “surprise factor.”
Both commentary tracks ebb and flow, but by and large the parties involved talk very conversationally — interruptions and all — nearly the entire time. In fact, the conversations get so animated at times that the movie automatically activates subtitles so you can follow the plot. This is a nice touch, I suppose, but the combination of text, dialogue and action makes the entire presentation hard to follow at times when the commentary tracks are rolling.
Disc two is where the bonus features really get going. Chronicles of a Director (37:44, 480p), a video diary from director Andrew Adamson, is a rather in-depth look at a man who had directed Shrek immediately before this film and at first didn’t even want to direct this one. Since he was passionate about the original literature, he ultimately embraced the chance to work on a large live-action film such as this, sort of like Peter Jackson, who was in love with LOTR and did a phenomenal job marrying his vision with that of J.R.R. Tolkein. This feature covers just about everything related to Adamson’s impact on production, from his initial vision and design documents to color usage and special effects.
The Children’s Magical Journey (26:21, 480p), a digital meet-and-greet with the four child stars, includes a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage of the kids’ first experiences on the film, including the actual footage of the aforementioned little girl’s blindfolded exposure to Narnia. There’s a bit of insight from the crew about what it was like to work with four kids, but this feature is generally comprised of interviews with the kids that (no offense) can get a bit tiring. Younger viewers will likely enjoy it, though.
Cinematic Storytellers (54:47, 480p) includes a series of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with the “artistic” members of the production team. The highlights are probably Richard Taylor from Weta Workshop (who also worked on LOTR) and Howard Berger from KNB Creature Shop, who talk about making the weapons and armor and creating/animating the various creatures, respectively. The behind-the-scenes footage here is no less impressive than the similar footage from the LOTR discs, but the Disney team has inexplicably edited-in what can only be described as b-grade porn midi music in the background. After about nine minutes, this really starts to grate, and the result is decent footage and a fine featurette that you end up not wanting to watch past the first three interviews — even though you’ve still got the production designer, director of photography, editor, music composer and producer to go.
Anatomy of a Scene (19:14, 480p) is an in-depth breakdown of two scenes: the one where the frozen waterfall breaks apart and the final battle sequence. The first scene is broken down completely, from actual production via hydraulics and miniatures to special effects, then shows how they married the whole sequence with CGI. There’s actually an unprecedented amount of behind-the-scenes footage here, and it’s amazing how much work went into just these two sequences. However, because there’s so much footage, you either have to be really into these scenes or a big fan of production, or you’re likely to get a little bit bored.
Likewise, you’ll have to be a big fan of the books or a school teacher to enjoy From One Man’s Mind (3:30, 480p), a mini biography of C.S. Lewis, but that’s not due to a lack of quality content. A bio is a bio is a bio; this one’s perfectly capable, but a bit dry considering the rest of the film and featurettes.
Creating Creatures (53:31, 480p) outlines how costumes, creatures and special effects all teamed up to help realize various characters and creatures from the fictional world of Narnia. The White Witch segment really talks a bunch about costumes, specifically her dresses, while Aslan’s segment talks — a bit self-referentially — about all the CG work that went into creating him, as well as the three puppets they created for certain scenes. Along with the other four sequences, these provide an exhaustive look at creating each creature and character, and although it can seem a bit long at times, this feature provides a great complement to the Cinematic Storytellers featurette.
Creatures, Lands and Legends: Creatures of the World (14:42, 1080p) is a compilation of “biographies” for each main character from the film, all of which are illustrated like a hybrid of a book and a graphic novel. Creatures, Lands and Legends: Explore Narnia (8:00), meanwhile, is an interactive map that lets you click on various landmarks in the world of Narnia to learn more about each one, including 3D fly-bys of each to really visualize the world. If the Creatures of the World featurette can be called character bios, then this featurette can only be referred to as a bio for each main location.
The Blu-ray highlight, though, is the interactive game Battle for Narnia, if for no other reason than games like this are only possible on the Blu-ray format. Players choose to be either a male or female hero, then choose from several battlefields on which to begin their turn-based battles against the forces of evil. The game mimics early Final Fantasy videogames in that each battle is comprised of “rounds” during which the player chooses how their character will attack (quick attack, power attack or defend), then watches the action unfold.
As you progress through the game’s stages (there are more than a half-dozen), you gradually recruit new characters to your team, which gives you more characters to command. Each character only unleashes one attack per sequence, and all animations are canned, with success or failure powered by digital dice rolls. As a result, each battle can take quite a while to play out, and there’s no way to skip ahead to the next sequence. Unfortunately, you find yourself at a continual disadvantage in the game, as enemies can “team up” on one member of your party while you’re unable to do the same thing. As far as strategic and turn-based games go, this is a serious omission, but the vision and implementation of the final product still makes for the deepest interactive game we’ve played on a Blu-ray Disc.
Put all these elements together, and you’ve got a fantastic two-disc Blu-ray collection. The movie itself can be a bit melodramatic, and in this reviewer’s opinion it will always play second fiddle to some of the production and plot elements of The Lord of the Rings, but the sheer amount of bonus content and the digital transfers make The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe worth the price of admission on Blu-ray.
- Score: 8.2
— Jonas Allen