The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Movie Reviews and How to Write Them (part 1 of a 3-part series)

Read Part 2 or Part 3

Copyright (c) 2005 Dianne Durante

The Review ...

In a magical world that they've stumbled into by accident, a group of ordinary siblings (sensible and brave Peter, smart but cautious Susan, sweet and optimistic Lucy) must first save their angry, rebellious younger brother Edmund - and then themselves - from the wrath of the power-hungry, sadistic, murderous White Witch. Those who love The Lord of the Rings series often love The Narnia Chronicles, too: same type of magical setting, same innocent heroes who don't intend to save the world but find that they must, same implacably evil and utterly ruthless foes. Even for those thoroughly familiar with the Narnia series, the movie offers some surprises, since the screenwriters considerably livened up the action, although they managed to do it without distorting the spirit of the book.

As anyone knows who's seen the trailer for this movie, the special effects are remarkably sophisticated - the multitude of computer-generated characters interact seamlessly with the actors. It's a credit to their creators and the skills of the human actors that the movie doesn't become just another CGI extravaganza. The youngsters who portray guileless Lucy and rebellious Edmund are particularly convincing, but the White Witch is in a category by herself. It's startling to watch her toggling the charm on and off. Later, when she's taunting an enemy before killing him, she lets her emotions erupt with chilling effect. Although we see little bloodshed, the White Witch and her minions would probably terrify small children.

For some who read the story as children, the Christian symbolism may now be so startlingly obvious that it's distracting. I'd recommend the movie for children who like action-adventure movies; they would probably not agree with me that a few chase and battle scenes should have been shortened. I'd also recommend Narnia for parents who want to see a film with their children that isn't explosions interspersed with expletives - a movie that's entertaining, and whose plot and characters they'll be able to discuss later.

... And how the review was written

All too often I read movie reviews that either give away the plot or that focus on one obscure point that doesn't help me decide whether I want to spend my time and money seeing a film. Below I've tried to capture the process that I went through to write the review above.

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Today I will write a review of Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. OK, fingers, start typing.

Can't. Don't know where to start. The movie was over two hours long, full of images and dialogue and pretty scenery and fantastic computer graphics, and then there's the Christian symbolism and that annoying plot twist (almost literally a deus ex machina) near the end … J.K. Rowling wouldn't have introduced "new" magic at a pivotal point in the plot. Hrumph. My daughter, a big fan of fantasy books and movies, thought Narnia "rocked out loud," and my husband, a fan of murder mysteries and political discourse, thought it was entertaining but not gripping. Does any or all of that information belong in my review?

That depends on who my audience is: family, friends, the general public or a very specific audience such as Objectivists. This review will be for a general public who wants enough information within five minutes or so to decide whether to see Narnia. Flat-out statements of my likes and dislikes won't help them. Discourses on Christian symbolism or on the use of the deus ex machina from Ancient Greek drama to the present won't interest most of the general public, either.

What then, should I include in a review that aims to help strangers decide whether to see Narnia?

Don't know. Fingers, take a rest while the brain works this through.

All right, we'll try something simple. Review this coffee mug for potential buyers. What's the first question? How well it fulfills its purpose. Its purpose is holding hot liquid for me to drink. That means the mug has to be strong enough to hold nearly boiling liquid, and of some shape that I can pick up to sip from. It has to be some color, but the color's not important. It has to be some shape, but it can be many different shapes, as long as it serves the purpose.

What's the purpose of a movie? Art, according to Ayn Rand, is "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments," and its purpose is to give man "a concretized projection of [his] values, an image in whose likeness he will re-shape the world and himself."

Stop!

This is a movie review, not the Third Discourse on Esthetic Theory. Anyone who's interested in the theory of art will have to read Rand's Romantic Manifestoand Leonard Peikoff's comments in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. In a movie review aimed at a general audience, there isn't room for this sort of discussion.

Is there some common-sense ground on which I can assume I and potential viewers of Narnia can meet? I'll assume that like me, they're interested in movies as entertainment. Random sequences of images and sounds aren't riveting entertainment. To hold my attention for a couple hours, I need a plot. The movie has to tell a story in dialogue and images. The story has to be a progression of events that logically follow one after another and build to a climax, or else it's just like a home movie - it may have significance for a few people, but for most viewers it'll be meaningless, hence boring. Elements such as camera work, costume design, and even acting are essential to the movie, but they must all work to convey the "bones" of the movie - the story.

How can I tell potential viewers about the story without giving away the ending? A plot synopsis would ruin the suspense the film-makers strove to create. What I need to do is give the "plot-theme," the situation that drives the action. I'll briefly describe the main characters and the conflict they face, without giving even a hint of the outcome. That way viewers can decide 1) whether they're likely to care what happens to the characters, and 2) whether the story line intrigues them enough to spend a couple hours of their life watching it unfold. If they're intrigued by the situation and the characters, they'll probably be glad to have seen the film even if the ending isn't exactly as they would have wanted it.

OK, I need to work out the plot-theme for Narnia. I've done this before, and it's almost always much harder than I expect.

So who says writing is easy? Get going.

First, who are the viewers supposed to be rooting for - whose actions drive the story? That's easy: the four Pevensie children. They're given distinct characters from the very beginning of the movie, where Edmund rushes out in the midst of an air raid to rescue a photo of his father, and scowls rebelliously when his sensible older brother, who unhesitatingly rushed out to save him, berates him for his thoughtlessness. Susan is the smart one, but it tends to make her reluctant to try new things - occasionally even pessimistic. Lucy, the youngest, is sweet, charming, optimistic; she never stays angry with anyone for very long.

I can see right away that this is going to be a difficult plot-theme, because I need to incorporate these four very different children, with a few adjectives that will help explain their motivation. So: Peter is sensible but brave, Susan is smart and cautious, Lucy is sweet and optimistic, Edmund is angry and rebellious. Oh, and I should replace "children" with "siblings." If these kids were strangers their determination to rescue Edmund wouldn’t be at all credible, given that they seldom show much affection to each other. With siblings, though, explicit displays of affection tend to be scarce.

It's tempting to add Aslan to the list of protagonists in the plot-theme. However, he doesn't actually appear in the movie until halfway through. While he's vital to the story, it's the children's actions that move the story, in the sense that until they appear in Narnia (quite by accident), everybody including Aslan is just waiting for them.

All right, what do the children want, and who's stopping them from getting it? Who (the antagonist) is easy: the White Witch, who has ruled Narnia for the past century, condemning it to be "always winter, never Christmas." She's determined to stay in power and is ruthless about torturing or destroying her enemies. She takes ferocious pleasure in their pain. The White Witch is murderous, power-hungry and sadistic.

Is the siblings' goal to save Narnia? They fit the prophecy for the humans who will do so, but that's not what they yearn to do. At first they're simply curious. Then they want to save Lucy's friend Mr. Tumnus. Then they have to rescue Edmund, who was beguiled by the White Witch on his first visit and has gone off to join her. In time, they discover that they have to help the Narnians fight the Witch or lose their own lives.

One more element that's necessary in this particular plot-theme is a mention of the setting. Potential viewers don't need to know that Narnia is reached through the back of a wardrobe in the country home of an English professor, but they do need to know that magical beings dwell in Narnia, and that the siblings stumble into that world purely by accident.

Now I have the elements of the plot-theme. Let me give it a shot. "In a magical world that they've stumbled into by accident, a group of siblings (sensible and brave Peter, smart and cautious Susan, sweet and optimistic Lucy) must save their angry, rebellious younger brother Edmund - and then themselves - from the wrath of a power-hungry, sadistic, murderous queen."

Well, that's wordy but enticing. It captures the fantasy elements and the battle to the death between the siblings who are trying to save lives, and the powerful enemy who's willing to kill as often as necessary to keep control of her kingdom.

If I were posting a Yahoo! review, I might confine myself to stating the plot-theme. But suppose I want to go a bit further. I could say whether I've seen similar situations in other movies, and whether the plot as unfolds here is predictable or has unexpected twists and turns. C.S. Lewis's Narnia series is often compared to Tolkien's The Lord of the Ringssame magical setting, same innocent heroes who don't intend to save the world but find that they must, same utterly evil foes. For those who love LOTR, chances are Narnia will be very appealing. For those who haven't read the Narnia series, many of the events of the plot will indeed be unexpected. Even for those who have read the book, the movie offers some unexpected twists, since the screenwriters livened up the middle and end of the book considerably.

Beyond the plot-theme, there are all those subsidiary elements that help tell the story and make it believable. Foremost among them I'd place characterization. Are the characters well-motivated, so that I understand why they behave as they do, or do they act unpredictably, leaving me wondering what got into them? InNarnia, the plot hinges on Edmund's reckless behavior and Peter's apparently habitual response (brave but exasperated elder brother to the rescue), both of which are set up in the opening scene of the film. The characters aren't deep, with hidden layers of thoughts or internal conflicts, but they act consistently unless (as in Edmund's case) something drastic happens to change their beliefs.

Characterization emerges via both action and by dialogue. Is the dialogue in this movie exceptionally revealing, witty, or distinctive? Does it sound like that guy talking to his friend at the next table, or like a fascinating stranger I'd love to chat with? In Narnia the main characters are polite and clear-spoken, but there were no particularly memorable lines. This is not a movie I'd have enjoyed just for the dialogue. However, since the dialogue (like the background music) is not especially good or bad, I don't think I'll even mention it in my final review.

Then there's acting - the delivery of the dialogue and the actions of the characters on screen. Are each actor's speech and movements consistent with the character he plays? Do his gestures, movements, the tics in his face and the timbre of his voice, all contribute to showing the character he's portraying? Occasionally a film has a character so stoic that the viewer isn't meant to know his feelings - Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, for example. In most cases, though, the actor should be letting me see quite clearly, from what he says and does, what's driving his character at any point in the story. In Narnia I found guileless Lucy and rebellious Edmund particularly well portrayed. The White Witch is in a category by herself: I could see her toggling the charm on and off with Edmund. In one of the later scenes, when she's taunting an enemy before killing him, she lets her emotions burst out with chilling effect.

As a movie reviewer I can also consider the look of the film. This encompasses the way the movie was shot, from the framing of each scene to the camera angles, close-ups, use of sharp or soft focus, bright or dark lighting, or the use of jerky, hand-held cameras vs. smooth, long shots. (See the Lumet book in the Suggested Readings.) If a film is shot well, the camera-work tells the story and emphasizes all the right points so unobtrusively that I don't even notice it. The camera-work in Narnia is integrated to the story, never distracting.

The pacing of a movie depends on whether only essential scenes are kept, and whether they're edited together so that the narrative flows. Bad editing can make the most intriguing story seem to drag. Narnia had some slow bits (mostly chase scenes and battles that could have been shortened), but in general the narrative moved along at a brisk clip, as it should in an action-adventure movie.

Finally, there are costumes, scenery and special effects. In Narnia the special effects are astoundingly good. Many of the characters were entirely computer-generated, yet utterly believable. As for the scenery, I did not have a mental image of Narnia, but the landscape seems completely appropriate: dense forests, distant mountains, craggy hills. It looks like a kingdom of considerable size, providing a satisfying series of obstacles to the siblings as they travel through it. The queen's ice castle was stunningly beautiful yet forbidding, perfectly suited to her character.

For viewers still undecided about seeing the movie, a few final comments to give an overview might be useful. Is the mood of the movie upbeat or depressing? Did I spend more time with the good guys or the bad? I wouldn't want to stress this too much, lest I give away the ending, but particularly for parents considering taking small children it's worth mentioning that Narnia is suspenseful with a few rather scary sequences. Not much blood is spilled, but the White Witch and her minions are frightening.

Every viewer's time is limited, and as a final point, I should say whether I thought seeing this movie was worth over two hours of my life. Did I come out feeling relaxed, refreshed, exalted, happy? Did it provoke me to think about some aspect of my own life? Would I go see it again? Would I recommend it to anyone else, and if so, to whom and for what elements? I came out of the theater feeling relaxed (not exhausted, as I often do after boom-bang-splat action-adventure movies) and eager to discuss the plot and characters with my husband and teenage daughter. Although I don't think I could get more out of it on a second viewing (unless I wanted to study a detail such as the CGI effects), I would recommend it for children who like action-adventure movies. I'd recommend it to parents who want to see a movie with their children that's not explosions interspersed with expletives - a movie whose plot and characters they'll be able to discuss later. I'd also recommend the movie to those who read the Narnia series as children and remember it fondly: it's a fairly accurate rendition of the spirit of the printed books, including the Christian elements (which grown-ups may find are now so obvious that they're distracting).

Now I collect the plot-theme and the subsidiary elements that seem worth mentioning - that are so good or so bad that they might influence whether a viewer decides to see the movie. And here's my review of The Narnia Chronicles: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Further Reading

In a sequel to this article, written just in time for the Academy Awards, I discussed evaluating movies, especially what is and what should be involved in judging a film "Best Picture."

Sidney Lumet, Making Movies. New York: Vintage Books / Random House, 1995. Lumet states that when he decides to do a movie he first works out the theme, then gears everything else toward conveying that theme. He writes about revising the script, setting up a scene for shooting, use of different camera angles and colored filters, art direction, costume, editing, music and more. The book is an easy read, and is illustrated with examples from Lumet's own movies: Twelve Angry Men, Network, Murder on the Orient Express, and others. This is not a book that will give you all the answers about every film, but it indicates some very useful questions to ask. Seeing Twelve Angry Men after you read it will be a completely different and fascinating experience.