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'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' - the 1979 Animation

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The Chronicles of Narnia
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the 1979 Animation
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe | Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader | The Silver Chair

In 1979, an animated adaption of CS Lewis' novel The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was made as a British-American co-production made in Los Angeles, Barcelona and principally London. Made within a year as a television special to encourage the education of American children, but receiving a limited cinematic release, the adaptation won the 1979 Emmy award for 'Outstanding Animated Program' and was nominated for 'Outstanding Individual Achievement – Animation Program'.

Plot

At an old Professor's house, Lucy tells her brothers Peter and Edmund, as well as her sister Susan, that she has returned at last, but they look confused; she has not had time to have gone away anywhere. Lucy reveals that she had been in a wardrobe and discovered that it leads to a magical, snow-filled land named Narnia, where she had tea with a faun named Mr Tumnus. Her story of a magical land is not believed after an investigation of the wardrobe reveals nothing, and she is mercilessly teased by her brother Edmund.

On a wet day a little later the four children decide to play hide and seek. During this game Lucy, the youngest child, hides in the wardrobe and Edmund, planning to tease her more, follows her. He discovers Narnia, but loses his sister in the snow. He encounters the White Witch, who rules Narnia with a heart of ice. Pretending friendship, she manipulates Edmund, promising to make him a prince and give him an infinite amount of Turkish Delight if he agrees to bring his brother and sisters to visit her ice palace. When he returns back to Earth he still denies Narnia's existence.

Persuaded by the Professor to give Lucy the benefit of the doubt, Peter and Susan return to the wardrobe with Lucy and Edmund and find themselves in Narnia. There they discover that Mr Tumnus has been arrested. Led to safety by two beavers who tells the children that they are destined to deliver Narnia from evil with the help of the lion Aslan, Edmund leaves to visit the White Witch, betraying his family.

Will Edmund be reunited with his family? Will Aslan eat any Turkish Delight? How does Aslan pick up a sword? Who will win in the fight between good and evil; the lion, the witch or the wardrobe?

Cast

There are two different dubs of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in English. In the US dub, the four children are voiced by American children while all the adult characters are voiced by British actors. In the UK dub all characters are voiced by British actors. Only Stephen Thorne, who voiced Aslan, appears in both adaptations.

CharacterUK ActorUS Actor
Aslan
Stephen Thorne
The White Witch Sheila HancockBeth Porter
Mr Tumnus Leslie PhillipsVictor Spinetti
Mr Beaver Arthur LoweDon Parker
Mrs Beaver June WhitfieldLiz Proud
LucyUncreditedRachel Warren
SusanUncreditedSusan Sokol
PeterUncreditedReg Williams
EdmundNicholas BarnesSimon Adams
Professor Leo McKernDick Vosburgh

Isle of Wight actress Sheila Hancock CBE is one of the most respected theatre actresses in the world, having won a Laurence Olivier Award in 2007 and a further four Olivier Award nominations as well as being Tony Award nominated. She has also appeared in a wide variety of films including Carry On Cleo (1964) and How I Won the War (1967). She would also be the voice of Impedimenta in Asterix and the Big Fight.

Arthur Lowe is one of Britain's best-loved actors. He was in Coronation Street for five years (1960-65) and played the headmaster in if... (1968), was six times BAFTA nominated and won a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA for his role in O Lucky Man!, but will always be known as Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army.

Leslie Phillips has appeared in numerous films and perhaps is best remembered for appearing in four Carry On films (1959-92) and being the voice of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter films. Stephen Thorne appeared in numerous radio shows and is also known for playing Omega in Doctor Who 'The Three Doctors'.

Dame June Whitfield DBE has also appeared in four Carry On films and is also well known for television sitcoms Beggar My Neighbour (1966-68), Happily Ever After (1974-78), Terry and June (1979-87) and Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2016). Australian actor Leo McKern is perhaps best known for playing Rumpole in Rumpole of the Bailey (1975-92) but had also played High Priest Clang in Help! (1965). Of the US cast, Welsh actor Victor Spinetti is perhaps the best known. He appeared in three Beatles films, A Hard Day's Night (1964), Help! (1965) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967), as well as The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). He helped assemble the US voice cast. Liz Proud, who played Mrs Beaver, had actually been one of CS Lewis' pupils.

Differences from the Novel

This adaptation has quite a few differences from the novel, with the English setting and references removed. Instead of being set in England during the 1940s with the four children being evacuees sent from London to escape the Second World War, the animation is set in the 1970s and the location of the professor's house is never discussed, leaving it open to the viewer's interpretation as to whether the children come from England or America. Another traditional English character, Father Christmas, is similarly edited out, although he leaves a feast for some woodland creatures to enjoy. Instead of Father Christmas giving gifts to Peter, Susan and Lucy, they receive their weapons from Aslan.

In this adaptation, the Witch's Head of the Secret Police is called Fenris Ulf rather than Maugrim and when Peter defeats him, Aslan dubs him Sir Peter Fenris-bane instead of Sir Peter Wolfsbane. This is because when CS Lewis released the novel in America he changed Maugrim's name to Fenris Ulf to reflect a wolf in Norse mythology. Since 1994 only the original edition has been published worldwide.

Also in this adaptation it is the White Witch who suggests Turkish Delight to Edmund, rather than being Edmund's suggestion. Jadis, the White Witch, is later revealed to have visited London in the prequel novel The Magician's Nephew, so she may well have experienced Turkish Delight for herself. Of course, in the 21st Century it seems strange that a child would make such a big deal about the sweet. It should be remembered that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, and in Britain, post-war rationing of sugar did not end until 1954.

One minor sentence removed from the animation is Mr Beaver's discussion of the White Witch. He states that she isn't human, but part-giant and part-descendant of Lilith1. This is later contradicted in The Magician's Nephew, leaving it unclear whether this was intended to be rumour, speculation, or an early, but later abandoned, origin story for the White Witch. To simplify matters it simply does not appear, and nor does the bluebottle in the room.

Making

We also went to Narnia with the kids.
– Bill and Steve Melendez

David D Connell of the Children's Television Workshop, best known for Sesame Street, originated the idea of a feature-length animated film of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for television in the mid-1970s. The Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation, to whom CS Lewis had given the copyright of his Narnia novels, gave permission provided they retained final approval. The company Kraft agreed to sponsor the broadcast as part of their reading programme that supplied teaching aids to school children. CBS confirmed they would broadcast the programme in two halves on subsequent days without advert breaks interrupting the show. The children would be expected to undertake exercises that compared the book to the original programme.

In 1978 the animation studio hired to make the adaptation pulled out as they felt the budget was too tight and they had hoped to make a cinematic film rather than a television movie. It was at this point that Bill Melendez was contacted. Melendez was a former Disney animator who had worked on films such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. Following the 1941 Disney Strike he worked for Warner Bros Cartoons and UPA before forming his own studio, Bill Melendez Productions, best known for the Peanuts animations made in 1965-94, for which he voiced Snoopy and Woodstock. On hearing the title, Melendez was excited by the possibilities and quickly agreed.

Melendez knew the animation had to be made cheaply and quickly, within nine months, as the air date was already booked and immovable. As there were not enough available animators in the US, Bill contacted his son Steve Melendez, who looked after the London-based arm of Bill Melendez Productions. Together they decided the best way to make the film was to use the same approach as for Yellow Submarine, and split the production between numerous studios. Finding studios that had experienced animators who were able to begin work on the production immediately was a challenge, so the filming was split into three parts. Bill Melendez Productions made the first third, Spanish animation studio Pegbar Productions made the second third and TVC (TV Cartoons Ltd) London, the studio that had made Yellow Submarine, worked on the more complex final act.

Making the animation was further complicated as Bill Melendez Productions needed approval for their work not only from the Children's Television Workshop but also from the Episcopal Foundation. They were also supervised by Walter Hooper, Lewis' private secretary and literary advisor of his estate. Although the novel contained illustrations when originally published, these were not suitable for animation and so new character and production designs were created by Alan Shean. Unfortunately the Foundation objected to most of the original designs, saying they were non-realistic, with only the dwarf's design meeting their approval.

Similarly, although the film was an English production and story, as it was being made for American television an American family of four children living in London were originally cast as the voices for Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. However, the Foundation objected to their voices, feeling that the family were not friendly enough to each other. They also objected to the original actor cast as Aslan, and insisted on new voices being recorded after four minutes of footage had been animated. This lost five weeks' work. The Foundation had originally wanted Aslan's death to be shown, but later agreed that it would be too explicit for younger viewers.

As the middle third of the film2 was animated in Barcelona by Pegbar Productions, this led to further complications. There were complicated tax laws as Spain was not in the EEC. There were also no fax or air-freight services to the studio, meaning Bill and Steve Melendez had to travel to Barcelona every weekend. They also arranged for English to be taught to all the workers at Pegbar Productions to ensure their instructions would be clearly understood.

When the animation was broadcast in the UK the original voice cast was replaced. This was because the original children had overpowering American accents, for example pronouncing Narnia 'Narn-ya'.

Review

Considering how quickly this adaptation was made, it is a confident, strong animation. The music by Welsh composer Michael J Lewis and recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra works well. There are many effective sequences, such as Aslan's joyful resurrection leading to flowers growing, as well as Aslan's breath restoring life to those who had been turned to stone. The stag hunting sequence is both very stylised and realistic, with the horse movements rotoscoped3 by experienced TVC head, George Dunning.

As is normal for animation made on a budget, Limited Animation4 techniques were employed. As Narnia is under a spell of winter, many outdoor scenes have a plain white background. Strangely, Mr Tumnus the faun is bright red, making him appear more devil-like and evil than friendly and the White Witch's bright red lips sometimes look as if they are about to fall off her face.

The opening sequence is also rather odd, as one moment it is a bright, sunny day with not a cloud in the sky, the next a terrifying storm with terrible thunder, lightning and heavy rain is striking the professor's house. The characters' appearances very slightly change between the sections made by different studios, yet it is always clear who is who. The children are wearing very bright, 1970s clothes, making it obvious no attempt to set the film during the Second World War is being made. Sadly by deleting the four children's characters' background part of what makes the story magical is lost. Apparently letters of complaint were written by children upset that Father Christmas did not appear.

Yet overall the animation successfully replicates much of the magic of the original story, helped by a strong performance by Sheila Hancock as the White Witch.

1Adam's wife and/or twin sister before the creation of Eve, Lilith is said to have slept with Lucifer instead, becoming mother to the race of demons.2The section between Beaver's first appearance to where Father Christmas' visit to the forest animals is discovered.3Developed by Max Fleischer of Fleischer Studios, rotoscoping involves filming a live action scene and, through tracing, creating animated footage closely based on the live action.4Camera techniques to create a cartoon film on a low budget. These include the use of repetitive animated sequences. For example when walking, the characters repeat the same movement with the same sequences, and actions such as as Fenris Ulf running are repeated. Other examples of limited animation cartoons include Star Trek: The Animated Series and The Flintstones.

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