Giving Life To Narnia

Director Andrew Adamson opened up a fantasy land created by author C. S Lewis, giving shape to the book's imaginary world

December 04, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

NEW YORK - As soon as word hit the Internet that Andrew Adamson, the director of Shrek and Shrek 2, would direct the movie version of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Narniaheads attacked him without mercy. They suggested that Adamson would make the human characters crack wise and sling mud like the baggy-pants cartoon humans in the Shrek films - and that Aslan, the noble lion, would belch and scratch himself like Shrek, the director's jolly green ogre. But producer Mark Johnson sensed that Adamson had the vision to meld an expansive moviemaking sensibility to Lewis' quirky spiritual adventure about four British siblings who escape the Blitz in a rambling country house. Playing hide and seek, the youngest, Lucy (Georgie Henley), enters a wardrobe that acts as a portal to the world of Narnia. Her presence triggers confrontations between the evil White Witch, Jadis (Tilda Swinton), who's frozen Narnia into an eternal winter - a winter without Christmas - and the soulful, indomitable Aslan (the voice of Liam Neeson).

"I read the book the night before I had breakfast with Andrew," says Johnson, "and I had to wonder, `is there enough there?' C.S. Lewis can be so spare. But Andrew walked me through the movie he wanted to make - and conjured up a movie that I wanted to see."

Adamson's movie, which opens Friday, is the one Johnson wanted to see. It will delight and surprise C.S. Lewis fans. It will startle Lewis neophytes who might think the material a bit twee - because the classic Pauline Baynes illustrations, haunting in their landscapes, can be soft and whimsical in their characterizations, and because Lewis can be equally intense and elusive.

At the hair-raising moment when the White Witch puts Aslan on the Stone Table for his execution, Lewis lists "creatures whom I won't describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book - Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses, and Ettins."

The triumph of Adamson's Narnia is that it vividly depicts all those creatures - and Lewis' "Ogres with monstrous teeth, and wolves, and bull-headed men" - without allowing them to swamp his themes of forgiveness and sacrifice.

After meeting Adamson, it is just the Narnia you'd expect from this quick, amiable, jauntily scraggly fellow. He grew up partly in Auckland, N.Z., and partly in Papua, New Guinea. As a kid, he loved the freedom of hopping on a motorcycle and biking through the countryside; he even thought of becoming an auto mechanic. He was ready to study architecture in Auckland when a car crash sidelined college and he joined a small computer animation company. He moved to the U.S. in 1991, to join Pacific Data Images, now PDI/DreamWorks - and one of his first American jobs was working for Johnson, then Barry Levinson's producer, on the team's 1992 phantasmagoria, Toys.

Adamson became known as a crackerjack visual-effects man for movies like James Cameron's True Lies. Still, he was only 36, and had directed only Shrek and Shrek 2, when family-oriented Walden Media brought him on to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe - a movie that would have been a challenge for George Lucas or Adamson's fellow Kiwi, Peter Jackson.

Expands on memory

Luckily, Adamson found he could draw on all his diverse experiences, mixing media and tones to give this movie fantasy the unruly texture of real life.

"I don't know if, as a child, I saw Narnia this way," Adamson, now 39, admits. "But my childhood impression has grown over 30 years, and the experience of seeing films like Star Wars has expanded my memory. And I didn't want to make the book strictly as it exists - I wanted to make my memory of the book. Did you ever visit the house that you grew up in, and when you went back you found it smaller than you remembered? I think the book can be like that - but not if you look at what's behind the characters."

So he chose to start with the terrifying spectacle of four kids scrambling for safety during an air raid. When their mother sends them off at the railway station, it's the ultimate anti-Harry Potter scene. These kids don't want to board a train: It makes them feel like baggage.

"To me, Narnia is an actual place, not an imaginary place, and I wanted the jeopardy to be real," says Adamson. "And by getting at what was real in the kids' world, I was setting the context for Narnia. It wakes the audience up and says this isn't the tiny, four-people-in-a-house movie you might be expecting. It's a bigger story than that. I thought the film should play as real as it seemed to me at 8 years old."

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