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HOLIDAY SNEAKS

Will this 'Lion' roar?

It's A $180-million Gamble On A Spiritual Children's Tale, With 'Shrek's' Director In Charge Of Real Kids. A Peek Behind 'narnia's' Magic Door.

November 06, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Oamaru, New Zealand — AT any given moment on any given day over the last 3 1/2 years, Andrew Adamson could have been fretting over fauns, goblins, unicorns, satyrs, ogres, sprites, centaurs and dryads. The director of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" might be found worrying about four actors so young the littlest member still sucks her thumb. Adamson may well have been occupied by a crew of up to 800 people, a budget of $180 million, and some 1,700 special effects shots. Or perhaps he was negotiating a story point with the C.S. Lewis estate, which was determined not to let Hollywood disfigure the author's most famous book.

But on this warm and sunny spring afternoon in the middle of nowhere on New Zealand's South Island -- Day 97, if you are counting, of a staggering 139 days of principal photography -- Adamson for a minute can think about nothing else but snow, and whether or not to fake it.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" represents a vast leap for the 38-year-old Adamson, who co-directed the first two "Shrek" movies. As with "Shrek," his new film is set in a fantasy world populated with talking animals and mythical creatures. Unlike those animated blockbusters, however, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is the first movie Adamson has directed without a partner, and it's the first time he has made a live-action film.

Equally important, Adamson doesn't enjoy the luxury of stealth, which he certainly benefited from on the first "Shrek" movie. As "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was readied for its Dec. 9 debut, everyone -- including Disney, which is betting the movie can mend its ailing studio, and religious leaders, who see the film as a significant Christian parable -- was looking over Adamson's shoulders each step of the way, concerned that the filmmaker get the smallest things right. That pressure makes seemingly minor decisions feel momentous -- which leads to the snow.

Spread in front of Adamson on the movie's set in a natural amphitheater called Elephant Rocks are four snow samples. Three are fakes, made from combinations of foam and paper, and one is the real thing. Producer Phil Steuer and special effects supervisor Jason Durey are leading Adamson through the snow audition, each candidate spread out on a small piece of black plastic. The samples look more or less identical, but Adamson studies them intently. For the better part of the film, Narnia is frozen in an endless winter. If the film's snow doesn't look right, nothing else will.

"In some regards, I'd like to use the real stuff," Adamson says with a slight accent from his native New Zealand still in evidence. "Because it's actually supposed to be melting."

The snow will be used a few days later as siblings from the Pevensie family make their way through Narnia, a magical land accessed by a wardrobe in a house where the children have been sent during the World War II bombing of London. Peter, Susan and Lucy Pevensie are walking toward the camp of Aslan, a lion battling the White Witch for control of Narnia.

For a century, Narnia and all of its creatures, real and mythological, have been locked under the witch's cruel, frigid spell. But now that the children have arrived, potentially fulfilling a prophecy of liberation, the weather is turning warmer, the cherry trees beginning to blossom, the snow starting to thaw.

For this part of the story, Adamson wants to truck down real snow from the mountains for greater verisimilitude. But by November (New Zealand's seasons are opposite North America's), the snow is too hard and dirty, and even clean snow might melt too quickly in the fierce sun. So Adamson chooses one of the fakes instead. And no one will ever notice.

When the scene is finished, the movie's artificial snow feels as genuine as its almost fully computer-animated talking beavers, which is to say very real indeed.

A WINNING FORMULA?

"THE Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" houses more than one possible resurrection story. The tale's self-sacrificing lion, Aslan, is miraculously raised from the dead. And, on a business level, the film is intended to revive the fortunes of Disney's movie unit and its producing partner, Walden Media.

Having lost its animated feature monopoly (largely thanks to Adamson's "Shrek," which he co-directed for DreamWorks), Disney has been trying to find a repeatable succession of films for family audiences.

Starting in 1950, Lewis published seven children's books in his Narnia series, and if the first movie works, the next Narnia film could be in theaters by late 2007 -- indeed, work already has begun on a screenplay.

"It has all the right ingredients," Dick Cook, Disney's studio chairman, says of the attraction of the Narnia books. "Obviously, it's a well-known story with great characters. It has stood the test of time, and it affords everyone the opportunity, if it is successful, to have a series, a franchise."

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