I saw Disney's adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe this evening with two children, ages 6 and 10. Generally what the phrase "family film" means nowadays is a G-rated vehicle for Nickelodeon or Disney's "stars." For the most part, a "good" family film is one that parents can tolerate just enough to take their children. The exception is cartoons, which often feature adult humor pitched over the heads of the children. Live action "family" films, though, rarely hold much pleasure for parents.
LWW, happily, was a genuine pleasure for all of us. If you have children and want something to do together, this is perfect. My six-year-old was literally on the edge of his seat for the entire film. And, yes, I'm using the word "literally" correctly here -- he spent more than two hours perched at the very front edge of the seat, leaning forward, mouth slightly open. While the rest of us managed to sit in a more dignified position, we all took a similar degree of delight.
Comparisons to LotR
OK, let's get this out of the way -- no doubt people are going to be asking whether it was of the quality of Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptation. No,it is not, but this should not be taken as a particular criticism, since I regard LotR as the most important film(s) of this century, and the best film series ever. Yes, better than Godfather or Star Wars. Saying that LWW isn't at the level of LotR is like scoffing at Warren Buffett because he doesn't have as much money as Bill Gates. LWW is not LotR, but it is very good.
Quality of Adaptation/Changes to the Storyline
The film is quite faithful to the storyline. Most of the changes are aimed at bringing the pacing in line for the film: for example, the children spend quite a bit more time barely escaping wolves than in the book, where the White Witch's minions are generally hours behind them, rather than seconds.
Interestingly, the film opens with a bit in London during the blitz. At first I thought that it was intended to explain to children (and uneducated adults) why this un-orphaned children were going off to the country to live with an eccentric professor, but instead the film parallels the war in Narnia with WWII. The allegory of the film, then, acts on two levels -- the Christian allegory of redemption, and England's struggle in WWII. There is even a very faint salute to the RAF when the first line of defense for the forces of good turns out to be griffins.
One really interesting change (for Americans) -- Fenris Ulf's name has been changed back to "Maugrim" as it was in the original British editions. I don't know the history of why the name was changed for Americans; it seems an odd change to make.
Oh, yes ... my friend Les will be happy to know that they kept the description of Aslan as "not tame" but "good," though they moved it to a much different part of the story.
The overall look of the film was a little uneven -- more on the level of the recent Star Wars films than on the level of LotR. A couple of shots were obviously "green screen" shots. Peter and Edmund's weapons and armor stayed remarkably bright and clean throughout the battle, while Susan and Lucy's clothes showed signs of being worn all night during their vigil over Aslan.
The creature effects were well done. They tended to approach photorealism when the creatures were not doing anything extremely un-animalesque; e.g. when the beavers are running, they look like beavers, but when they grin, they look like cartoon characters. The centaurs were really very impressive, and I found myself anticipating a confrontation between a centaur and a minotaur -- a confrontation that eventually took place, though too briefly for my tastes.
I was surprised to find that my favorite "look" was that of the White Witch. In the first half of the film, I was unimpressed. She did not appear to be Jadis to me. She looked like ... well, like a pale actress in costume. Not that I wanted terrified children screaming from the theater, but she didn't look scary to me when she was angry.
In the battle scenes, though, it is clear what they are going for -- she is a Valkyrie. At one point I half expected her to start humming Wagner. Her dual-wielding is believable enough that we share in the expectation that anyone stupid enough to come near her will be cut down. If Dorothy tried dropping a house on this witch, the house would come out on the losing end. The Germanic Valkyrie look brought my mind back to the WWII allegory again. Very, very well done.
The Witch is great ... but I just went over that.
Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy, was just cute enough without lacking authenticity. IMDb lists Narnia as her only credit -- let's hope that fame doesn't turn her into Haley Joel Osment. She gives probably the best performance in the film. Skandar Keynes does well with the difficult role of Edmund. Anna Popplewell, who has a last name that is fun to say, seemed like she might be about two years too old to play Susan -- no matter how many 1940's children skirts they put her in, they couldn't quite hide the fact that she's pushing adulthood. I thought her more the age of Susan in Prince Caspian -- just on the cusp of womanhood. William Moseley does a passable job as Peter, and looks young enough -- even though IMDb has him being born in 1987, he doesn't seem old enough to shave.
I found the look of Professor Kirke a little personally disturbing, since I suddenly realized that I had pictured him in my mind's eye as looking exactly like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Why Vonnegut? Dunno ... I'm sure neither Lewis nor Vonnegut would be thrilled by the association.
I thought Liam Neeson was very weak as Aslan. First off, his voice sounded neither particularly lion-like nor Christ-like to me. Second, he seemed to be phoning in his performance. Fortunately, Aslan has very few lines, so viewers aren't likely to notice that he's not putting forth much effort.
I've made a few references to allegory already, but let me close by talking about the ways in which the Christian allegory is handled. The film allows the allegory to be carried in the plotline, without inserting a lot of visual cues to the Christian themes -- so you don't have a lot of things like Aslan's body in a crucifiction pose or the Stone Table casting a cross-like shadow or anything. Some may take this as an attempt to soft-pedal the Christian themes, but I thought it a wise decision; contemporary audiences have a limited taste for bold allegory. Anyone too dim-witted to see Aslan as a Christ figure isn't going to "get it" because of a few shots -- heck, if you still don't get it in the end, you probably wouldn't get it if Aslan wore a sign reading "Christ." The light touch seems the best way to go.