Last time, we looked at the heart of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with our four lead characters, but today let’s take a look at all of the remaining colorful characters that pepper the story. Let’s start with the supporting heroes.
As the obvious Jesus figure without any signs or hints of being anything else, Aslan should be a tough character to pull off. I mean, you can count on one hand the great portrayals of Jesus in film (Willem Dafoe, the guy from Life of Brian, that’s it), but all four of these portrayals work.
There’s a duality to the Aslan character, as he has intimate conversations with all of the main characters while still being described as “not a tame lion.” He admits his feelings of fear and loneliness to Susan and Lucy before his death, but then he destroys the White Witch in an almost anti-climactic moment after he comes back to life.
The BBC version presents the least-interesting version of this character, but Alisa Berk’s soothing voice adds a good bit to the character, and the puppetry is actually not dreadful, especially compared to the horrific special effects of the rest of the series. That said, like so much of the series, it comes off feeling a bit bored and uninspired.
Steven Thorne and Liam Neeson play Aslan in the cartoon and Disney film respectively, and both bring similar gravitas to the character. Thorne’s voice is a bit more commanding and powerful, while Neeson’s has more of a calm but confident tone. You know both of them are in complete control of the situation, but the scenes they share with the human characters are also incredibly effective. That said, there’s just something about the book Aslan that leaves a bit to the imagination. We feel utter calm just reading about him, and even the best actor in the world can’t portray it, because everyone sees him differently. Simply put, it’s a character that just works better in book form. The point goes to the book.
Although he only has a few scenes in the story, Mr. Tumnus is easily one of the most memorable characters in the Narnia lore, partially for being the very first character anyone meets in Narnia. In fact, C.S. Lewis said, “The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.”
Tumnus meets Lucy almost immediately as she enters Narnia, and while he originally plans to turn her over to the White Witch, he quickly changes his mind after learning what humans are like. When all four of the children enter Narnia together, they discover he has been taken by the Secret Police, and saving Tumnus is most of their motivation for staying in Narnia.
You would think that appearance-wise, the cartoon would have the least trouble pulling this character off, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. For some reason, the cartoon took the goat-like features and just went all out in making him look like the Devil, giving him a red face and emphasizing the horns that jut out of his head. It’s an odd choice to say the least. The BBC version also skimped out in the costuming department by simply giving Tumnus over-sized wool pants. It shouldn’t bother me so much, but it’s one of the many things about that version that constantly takes me out of it.
The Disney film, on the other hand, takes the book character and expands on him in the best way possible. James McAvoy plays the part to a t, and we see every ounce of turmoil he is going through. From the opening seconds, he is clearly a character at war with himself. Plus, we get an additional scene with him and Edmund at the Witch’s castle, where he finds out Edmund is the one who told the Witch about him meeting Lucy. It’s another small change that helps the film a lot. I have to give the point to the Disney film.
BEST SUPPORTING HEROES
From talking beavers and giants to Father Christmas and a character based on the author himself, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is full of lively characters fighting for the forces of good. The characters serve as the gateway between the human children and the strange world of Narnia. Tumnus is half-human and half-goat, beginning the transition into the new land. After that, the children encounter two talking beavers, which even with everything they know of Narnia so far, is strange.
The beavers serve as little more than 1) Expository characters who tell the children about the prophecies regarding themselves and Aslan and 2) Plot devices to get the children to Aslan. In spite of this, they’re still memorable, mainly on the basis of being talking beavers. Sometimes they’re memorable for bad reasons too.
This is one of those things about the BBC version that just made me think they didn’t care. The book and cartoon show them as a loving couple who go out of their way to help the children, with the cartoon going the extra mile to show them as very loving. The Disney film shows the beavers (voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) as helpful but constantly arguing with each other. It’s funny at first, but it does grow a bit tedious after a while.
The Professor is a minor character in all versions, although he is expanded upon in the later book The Magician’s Nephew. C.S. Lewis based the character somewhat on himself, and frankly every version pretty much does justice to the somewhat eccentric character. He’s even voiced by the great Leo McKern (The Omen) in the cartoon. I enjoy Jim Broadbent’s interpretation in the Disney film, but it is perhaps a little too on the stereotypical weird side.
Father Christmas also makes an appearance for… some reason and gives the children weapons for the battle. Okay, it’s justified because it shows that the curse of “always winter and never Christmas is ending,” but why is there Christmas in a world where the Christ figure is named Aslan? Whatever, I’m overthinking a kids’ book. The Father Christmas in the book is painfully sexist, even for the day. Sure, the “women not being in battles” thing was a popular notion of the day, but he says “Battles are ugly when women fight,” as if they weren’t otherwise. The BBC and Disney versions try to awkwardly dance around this, but the animated film cuts the character entirely. Characters mention he has come, but we don’t see him, and Aslan gives the children the gifts instead. He tells Susan and Lucy he has other plans for them during the battle, which turns out to be gathering more troops, which is a much better way to handle this.
Lewis also loved to include one-shot characters, who only spoke a few lines of dialogue but were nonetheless memorable. The book has one of these in the Giant Rumblebuffin, who is freed at the Witch’s palace and helps lead the charge back to the battle. He is included only in the BBC version, showing why adapting these kind of characters just doesn’t work. It’s a painfully awkward and forced cameo, although it works fine in the book. There’s a fox voiced by Rupert Evans in the Disney film who is memorable in his short screen time, but overall the cartoon does the best with the minor heroes.
BEST WHITE WITCH
A villain so fascinating that Lewis immediately began a book showing some of her origins, Jadis is an impressively rich villain for a simple tale like this. Her motives of power are typical, but the mythology is surrounding her makes her much more interesting.
The beavers say she is descended from Lilith, who was Adam’s first wife in some Jewish traditions. (Can you imagine the controversy if a Christian author published something like this today?) It may just be a singular sentence, but it adds an air of mystery and other-world evil to her character. In addition to the obvious diabolical allusions, she is also reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen.
There is a tendency to play this character as bombastic and incredibly over-the-top, which she is not necessarily in the book. The cartoon plays this up a bit, but Barbara Kettleman’s performance in the BBC is downright hilarious. Every single line is shouted and you can see the veins ready to burst in her face.
At first, Tilda Swinton’s Jadis is underplayed so much that it’s unsettling. Her conversation with Edmund is disturbingly flirtatious, and she gradually become more unhinged as her empire begins to fall apart. I can’t even separate the book’s witch from the movie’s anymore, because they are one and the same to me. They are the exact same character, so I have to give a point to both.
BEST SUPPORTING VILLAINS
There are no major villains outside of Jadis, but there is a memorable slew of evildoers who make appearances. She does have a dwarf who always accompanies her, unnamed in the book but named Ginarrbrik in the Disney film, which is a name Lewis would have probably approved of. He’s fine in all versions, but it’s strange that the cartoon one has no beard, since Jadis asks Edmund if he is a large dwarf who has cut his beard off.
Maugrim is the only villain who gets any kind of character, but even then most versions have him be basically an obstacle for Peter to overcome. I really enjoy Michael Madsen’s performance in the Disney film, though, as he’s genuinely threatening and his voice sounds exactly how you would expect a wolf to sound if it was to talk. Thankfully, he does not cut anybody’s ear off.
The other villains don’t make an appearance until the end, when Jadis summons them all to kill Aslan and take over Narnia. The book describes all kinds of monsters, and Lewis even refuses to name some of them (a classic storytelling trick). The cartoon and Disney version do a fine version of bringing these characters to life, but the BBC version looks like that Halloween party one guy was really excited about but nobody else wanted to go to.
Ultimately, when you get down to it, the Disney film just shows more of the forces of evil. It expands on the battle sequence and shows all kinds of creatures, making us wonder what kind of part they played in the witch’s reign. That’s why I give that version the point.
Next week, we’ll get to the final categories, including the biggest one of all (story) and see which version is the best overall.