When The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, opened for Christmas 2005, it faced off with an actual 800-pound gorilla: Peter Jackson's King Kong.
Jackson, coming off one of the most imaginative and audacious of all escapist movie classics -- his beloved and hugely profitable Lord of the Rings trilogy -- was tackling a remake of his and many other fans' favorite fantasy adventure. The creative stakes were as high as movie-lovers' hopes, with casting choices that veered between the brave (Jack Black, Adrien Brody) and the indisputably wise (Naomi Watts) and the tantalizing decision to create not an update of the original but an all-out 1930s period piece.
Unlike King Kong, the first Narnia movie was prejudged in the shadow of the Harry Potter movies as well as Lord of the Rings. What were the odds that a Hollywood studio could take on a third British magic-literature series and serve it even halfway right? With Andrew Adamson of the beguiling Shrek and the bogus Shrek 2 taking on directing chores, the screen hardly seemed set for an auteur classic. The buzz Narnia generated came from C.S. Lewis buffs who worried over the movie's fidelity to his books and secular bloggers who suspected the producers of Christian proselytizing.
Given the expectations game that rules entertainment news as well as political coverage, King Kong was deemed a disappointing blockbuster -- though Watts and Brody were wonderful, the re-creation of Depression New York and old-time filmmaking miraculous, and the climactic scenes absurdly, tumultuously moving. The excesses of the creature-feature Skull Island scenes turned off some audiences and critics (myself included) and gave off the whiff of energetic self-indulgence.
By contrast, viewers of all kinds embraced The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for its robust storytelling, nonpreachy morality and unassuming visual splendor. Still, Adamson didn't get the credit he deserved, partly because he approached both his real work and his publicity with becoming modesty. Critics viewed him more as a custodian than as an interpreter of Lewis' fiction -- less like Jackson transforming J.R.R. Tolkien into pure cinema and more like Chris Columbus preserving the letter of J.K. Rowling's text in the amiable, mediocre early Harry Potter films.
Yet glance back at that movie, and Adamson's key decisions seem prodigious. Take, at the most obvious level, the casting -- not just of the unknown child actors but of previously underused adults. After years as an indie and arthouse star with occasional forays into commercial films like Constantine, Tilda Swinton finally sparked as a widescreen sensation, magnetizing every inch of her towering stature with polarizing forces, oozing charm and launching menace in quick turns. She was the White Witch to the bone -- and still is in her one sequence in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. (Would she have scored a role like the corporate villainess in Michael Clayton if she hadn't gained some heat from her Narnia ice queen?)
On the masculine side of the ledger, Liam Neeson, often wasted as the mentor or father of young heroes like Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York, Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven and Christian Bale in Batman Begins, got a chance to play the ultimate sacrificial mentor as the voice of Aslan the lion. And he came through, big time. He offered an impression of wisdom-in-action that breathed hope and reassurance into each viewer's aural memory.
Who knew that the young actor playing the faun Mr. Tumnus -- James McAvoy -- would so swiftly become an essential part of other top directors' acting companies with credits like Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland and Joe Wright's Atonement? Of course, no one knew, but we all should have guessed from the delicacy and sureness of his Mr. Tumnus. A hairy-legged, conical-eared, bare-chested male creature inviting a girl to have tea at his home could have given audiences the creeps; instead, with Georgie Henley as tiny Lucy, McAvoy conjured an immediate and lasting poignancy.
But it's the robustness and completeness of Adamson's vision that bespoke a supremely talented moviemaker coming into his own. Adamson was intent on presenting a grown-up boy's slant on Lewis' tale, from the particulars of each character to the size and sweep of their places in the tapestry. His version of Father Christmas, for example, was not a jolly, belly-jiggling Santa Claus, but a bold and forthright Arctic warrior.
More important, Adamson moved the story away from the sketchy theatrical whimsy of Pauline Baynes' oft-reprinted illustrations and into a realm of mythic portraiture close to N.C. Wyeth or the comic strip Prince Valiant. He arrived at an emotional breadth to fit his panoramas, emphasizing the dangerous realistic backdrop of the story -- Hitler's London blitz -- and focusing on the attraction and repulsion of the Pevensies to life-or-death risks in Narnia.
In their bonding as well as their friction, the Pevensies come off as real family. Is there a more accurate portrait of a middle child in movies than Narnia's troubled, unpredictable, ultimately valorous Edmund? And Adamson didn't merely give Susan a bow and arrows, as Lewis did. In the movies, she uses them with lethal force.
With Iron Man entering its third week and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull not in theaters until Thursday, the only 800-pound gorilla facing the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian, is the memory of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. One fears that fans and reviewers alike will recoil from the film's frank embrace of Lewis' novel as a saga of tyranny and rebellion. That would be a sad mistake. Like any major director, Adamson opens up unexplored facets of his source material -- and makes it seem brand-new.
Adamson highlights the C.S. Lewis who witnessed horror upon horror in the trenches of the First World War and transmuted it into battles replete with what Lewis biographer Alan Jacobs calls "the dense fog of confusion." One elating aspect of Prince Caspian is that it brings a bracing clarity to chaos.
Adamson has said he wants only to produce (not direct) the next film in the series, but after following him into Narnia, movie lovers will likely follow him anywhere.