Thursday, 23 December 2010

And WHAT, pray tell, ARE YOU?

"I'm here, I'm here! I've come back, it's all right!" Ah, Lucy, I can hear your little piping voice now.

I love all Christmas films, from schmaltzy Jimmy Stewart ones to the delights of Clark Griswold (I always identified with his urgent need to make the entire family take part in the Christmas of his dreams). But when the snow is thick and crunchy, there is only one movie for me. Forget big budget Hollywood; the original cartoon of The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe is the definitive version (and available on VHS!).

I have to warn you, this film is greater than the sum of its parts. At first glance it may seem to be a slightly ropey animation (with colours that do not always match) and features some fairly dreadful acting from the child actors, especially in crying scenes.

However, it does boast a cracking soundtrack and a high calibre of adult actors. Do make sure you watch the slightly lesser known English soundtrack version; Arthur Lowe and June Whitfield are the ultimate cosy couple as Mr and Mrs Beaver, and Sheila Hancock gives what is, in my opinion, her tour de force performance as the white witch. I would love to ask her if she remembers this film; what was probably a few days work in the voiceover booth for her ended up influencing my entire childhood.

Until seeing the fancy schmancy remake, I didn’t appreciate how cleverly this screenplay was streamlined; cutting out unnecessary details and pushing the story along in broad strokes. The script has a lyrical quality, to the point where I realise now that I didn’t even understand half of the words I heard as a child, I just enjoyed the poetic rhythms. Despite the dodgy animation, parts of the film are spellbinding especially the death and resurrection of Aslan.

My friend / virtual sister Anna and I would spend hours acting the movie out as we watched, pulling the curtains and walking along the windowsill to create a “tunnel” for the extending wardrobe. She was always Mr Tumnus (who, I realise as an adult, was as camp as Christmas) and Edmund, and I was always Lucy and the witch (they didn’t have any scenes together). In fact, after spending my childhood performing the witch’s lines, I have them memorised and still occasionally use them. “Are you my counsellor? Or my slave? Do as you're told!” is a pretty failsafe retort to anyone who is attempting to boss you about. And "Who has won? Fool!" (in ringing, jubilant tones) will ensure that you exit every argument with triumph.

Being a little obsessed with the series and CS Lewis himself (I was recently admiring an antique wardrobe in Oxfam and HAD to open it and check the back, JUST IN CASE) I have a somewhat vested interest in hoping that the latest adaptations will do justice to the books. (Although I am quite fond of the rubbish BBC version which had people wearing barrels to suggest animal-like bodies.) I’m still disappointed that nobody thus far has attempted to film the wonderful prequel, The Magician’s Nephew; it has some sequences that would lend themselves so well to the CGI that has now been developed. I think we can safely say that The Last Battle will never be made into a film, unless the principles of the story are butchered beyond recognition. Call it racist, call it prophetic – but a story about Aslan's end-of-the-world judgement, brought about because Narnians start to believe that his name is synonymous with that of the god of the "foreign" Calormenes, and you have a problem.

Unfortunately movies like this are often ruined by the child actors; I’m a firm believer that generally, children cannot act. This is why you only ever see the same kids over and over again (Shirley Temple, Dakota Fanning, Haley Joel Osment) because once you find that quirk of nature who is able to sound natural rather than stagey, you're going to use them until the uppers and downers and coke and prescription nerve tonic have rendered them useless. The Golden Compass, despite its stellar cast and CGI polar bears, was ruined for me by the frankly appalling performance of Dakota Blue Richards in the leading role of Lyra. Poor kid, it wasn’t her fault – it was down to the person who cast her and the director who let them print the godawful takes.

Back to Narnia; in my humble opinion, the 1979 cartoon wipes the floor with the new offering. Aslan (voiced by Stephen Thorne) is an imposing presence, with a voice that is deep and rich – as per the original description in the book – and creates the truest interpretation of the character that I've seen. To me, Liam Neeson sounds far too friendly – although the current Oxford / Regent Street displays have Aslan looking like a yellow-eyed vampire lion. I know he isn’t tame, but I don’t think he should be scaring small children.

Tilda Swinton may look ridiculously evil in most of her film roles, but I felt that her turn as Jadis was hampered by her apparent reluctance to ham it up. She ended up going too far in the opposite direction and underplayed the whole thing to the point where lines such as “Despair... and die!” came out as a feeble suggestion rather than a strident command.

So for the ultimate in "always winter and never Christmas" fun, curl up with a pint of hot ribena (best drink evah!) and enjoy the sight of those saucer-eyed, bell-bottom-wearing kids, the snuggly atmosphere of the Beaver's underground hideout, and the uplifting music. You might even want to indulge in a box of Turkish delight. As a child, I'd never seen the real stuff and used to cut a Fry's chocolate-covered Turkish delight into miniscule cubes to better resemble the witch's confection. We made our own fun in the 80s.

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