The Chronicles of Narnia (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe / Prince Caspian & The Voyage of the Dawn Treader / The Silver Chair) (1988)

Actors: Richard Dempsey, Sophie Cook, Jonathan R. Scott, Sophie Wilcox
Format: AC-3, Box set, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, DVD, NTSC
Language: English
Region: 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 3
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: BBC Warner
DVD Release Date: November 9, 2010
Run Time: 540 minutes

Special Features:

  • Past Watchful Dragons - Oxford Historian Humphrey Carpenter describes how C.S. Lewis came to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first Narnia book
  • Interviews from the 2003 cast reunion
  • Historic interviews from the series premiere
  • Special Effects footage
  • Outtakes
  • Photo Galleries


As I write this, we’re awaiting the fate of the big-screen Chronicles of Narnia, with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader opening in a couple of weeks and hoping to rescue things from the underperforming Prince Caspian. The Narnia series remains the only survivor of the post-Lord of the Rings fantasy glut, having passed countless lesser-known works in its wake. (Harry Potter is still going strong, though it started before LotR and thus doesn’t count as a bandwagon jumper.)

It makes sense, of course: C.S. Lewis’s fantasy series remains a beloved classic, and under the helm of Andrew Adamson, the feature films have thus far done justice to his work. But they weren’t the first ones to tackle an adaptation of the Narnia books. The BBC launched an ambitious effort to bring the first four to the small screen: armed with only a fraction of its successor’s budget, but also heartfelt love for the material and the sort of earnest stodginess that characterizes most BBC productions. Warners has now released all four films in a collector’s edition - presumably to capitalize on the Dawn Treader publicity - and the collection definitely merits a look.

In actuality, it’s more like a TV series than a movie, with each book divided into half-hour “chapters” to keep young attention spans from wandering too far. That means you’ll be watching the opening and closing credits quite often if you want to see the whole thing in one go. The limitations of the era prevent them from fully realizing Lewis’s grandeur (the shows ran from 1988 to 1990 originally), resorting to puppets, live actors in make-up and some shockingly crude animation to bring Narnia’s magical creatures to life. Shot on video and formatted for 4:3 screens, the films lack a proper sense of scope as well, and the rigid adherence to every line of Lewis’s prose cuts down on the excitement factor considerably. The cast does well enough, but can’t hope to compete with the polished performances from the later films, and those accustomed to spectacular Hollywood extravaganzas are apt to come away underwhelmed.

And yet the comparative modesty actually becomes part of the selling point. Devoid of high-end poise, the four films fall back on a sense of heartfelt enthusiasm to carry them through. In the process, the series develops its own sense of charm: buoyed by nostalgia and the heroic efforts of filmmakers doing what they can with what they have.

Anyone who grew up with the books can tell you about the plots: the adventures of the four Pevensie children (and later their horrid cousin Eustace and his lonely friend Jill) in a magical kingdom populated by talking animals, fauns and all manner of magical creatures. A thinly veiled Christian allegory named Aslan presides over it all, sending the kids off on various quests while exuding uncomfortable vibes of the “He died for your sins” variety.

The producers take few liberties with the prose, and it proves a wise choice, transporting Lewis’s narrative instincts intact to the screen. As you grow accustomed to its rhythm, the budgetary limitations fade, replaced by good cheer and a sense of innocence which serves the stories well. A few surprises in the cast elevate the proceedings further, notably Warwick Davis as the valiant mouse Reepicheep and Tom Baker as the perennially gloomy Puddleglum. (Davis also appeared in the big screen versions of the film.) Together, they provide an enjoyable alternative to their successors, letting us see how different producers with different resources can still do justice to the same works. The BBC never tackled the problematic later books in the series (The Last Battle, in particular, may be unfilmable), but the four films provide a sense of completion that Lewis himself lacked. We should be grateful to it for that… and for the fact that best things about it don’t need a single penny to make us smile.

THE DISCS: The set contains four discs, three of which hold the movies and the fourth of which carries the features. (Prince Caspian and Dawn Treader - both shorter than the other two - are folded onto a single disc.) The transfer is nice, though the films remain formatted for old-fashioned television viewing, which means black bars on the left and right of the screen. The extras disc is fairly typical but also enlightening, featuring interviews with the cast and crew, features on the effects and a literary historian discussing the genesis of the books (and their various adaptations).

WORTH IT? Nine hours worth of movies in a pretty boxed set make the $35 price seem just about right.

RECOMMENDATION: Teens and those with terminal blockbuster mentality might want to skip it in favor of the new one. Anyone with kids and those who grew up loving the books, however, may be surprised at how enjoyable the set can be.

- Rob Vaux



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