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Date: 27 April, 2006

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'At this rate, the final instalment will be called Harry Potter and the Tedium of the Pension Queue.'


Steve Couch reviews films recently released on DVD.

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Use the jump links below to read the other reviews in this column
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
King Kong
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Howl's Moving Castle
Everything Is Illuminated

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeCover
(Walt Disney, certificate PG)

Posh kids save the world! Well, the magical one at the back of a disused piece of bedroom furniture anyway. The young protagonists may make Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry seem like the Mitchell brothers in Eastenders, but they do a fine job in carrying Andrew Adamson’s faithful adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ childhood classic novel.

If you are a fan of the books, then you can approach the film with confidence. Adamson resists the temptation to simply transcribe the novel into a film script (a temptation otherwise known as ‘Harry Potter syndrome’) but retains the heart and spirit of Lewis’ story. The Christian allegory is there, but isn’t overplayed – those who find Lewis’ spiritual overtones offensive should approach with caution, but avid Lewis fans and neutrals are both likely to enjoy the movie.

This is the right time for this film on several levels. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises have rejuvenated the market for big budget fantasy movies, and advances in CGI mean that Lewis’ vast array of mythical creatures and talking animals can be recreated with an impressive photorealism. Add serious acting talent such as Liam Neeson, Ray Winston and Tilda Swinton, and it’s an impressive support for a film which depends heavily on the performances of four juvenile leads. The kids successfully conjure up Lewis’ jingoistic 1940s cheerfulness without descending into annoyance (a feat not shared, in this reviewer’s opinion, by the BBC TV version in the 1990s), and Tilda Swinton’s White Witch is suitably amoral and chilling without descending into cliché.

James McAvoy delivers a subtly judged performance as the faun Tumnus, and the moment when he defies the Witch and states his loyalty to the concept of a free Narnia proves that political satyr isn’t dead.

You can buy either a one or two disc version of the film, and the extras on the second disc are, for once, pretty good value for the extra three quid. There are plenty of featurettes, and clever interactive menus that allow you to switch between exploring the production of the film, or the mythology of Lewis’ Narnia. Happily, the behind the scenes stuff had the effect of enhancing my appreciation of the subtleties of the film, rather than simply letting daylight in on magic and spoiling the illusion.

Apart from that, the main lessons to be learned from the extras are as follows: (a) oh my word, what a bunch of posh kids – especially Peter (b) everybody thinks director Andrew Adamson is a nice bloke; (c) he seems to be a nice bloke (d); he made lots of effort to make filming fun for the kids; (e) did I mention that the kids are a bit posh?

Click here to see the Damaris Study Guide for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

King KongCover
(Universal, certificate 12)

I have a problem with Adrien Brody. The fact that he looks like Alastair McGowan means that his first few minutes in any film I see him in always distracts me. Oh well, I’ll get over it, I just felt the need to share that. Thanks for listening.

Impressionist look-alikes aside, Peter Jackson’s homage to his favourite movie from childhood is glorious (and Brody, along with the rest of the cast, is very good). Despite the lengthy three hour running time – will Jackson ever make a short film again? – King Kong is full of excitement, spectacle and more monkey action than you can shake an oversized banana at. We see Kong on the rampage in the jungle and on the run in New York, some prolonged ape versus dinosaur sparring and some seriously disturbing creepy crawlies which viewers of a sensitive disposition will find distinctly stomach-churning.

Jack Black delivers a controlled performance as obsessive movie mogul Carl Denham, reining in the mania of his lighter comic movies but retaining a sense of freewheeling danger. But the real acting kudos should go to Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis (as Kong) for imbuing their blossoming pan-species relationship with genuine emotion. The connection between the two is critical in establishing the film as being more than just monster-flick set pieces. I’m told that the 1933 original hinted at a more sexual sub-text to the relationship, which is entirely absent here.

Lord of the Rings fans expecting Jackson to repeat the epic collections of extras from his world straddling franchise may be disappointed. There are no commentary tracks, and fewer goodies to pick over than we have become accustomed to. Having said this, the three hours of extras are very good, and judged by anybody else’s standards, this is a fine collection.

There are 35 post-production diaries (previously released as part of December’s King Kong Production Diaries), plus two new featurettes focusing respectively on Kong’s Skull Island home and New York in 1933. The new pieces reveal the painstakingly detailed research of Jackson and his team, constructing a natural history for the mythical island as well as ensuring that the New York of the film is an accurate reflection of the historical reality.

But, as ever, the film’s the thing, and it’s a monster. There is much more to the film than the creature set pieces, but those set pieces are prolonged and fantastic. Even with a three hour running time, this is an action-packed ride that is well worth an evening (or two) of your time.

Click here to see the Damaris Study Guide for King Kong.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireCover
(Warner Brothers, certificate 12)

The fourth instalment in the celluloid version of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard’s school adventures sees the franchise getting darker, and more satisfying. Mike Newell (the film director, not the manager of Luton Town football club) takes over the reins here, and shows an admirable willingness to break away from the confines of the overlong (in my humble opinion – but compare my book sales with J.K. Rowling’s to see how much that’s worth) novel. Bad boy Barty Crouch (David Tennant) is revealed here as the villain of the piece from our first meeting with him, whereas Rowling kept us guessing until much later on.

Rupert Grint continues to be thoroughly enjoyable as Ron, despite having an acting range that extends all the way from horrified dismay to dismayed horror. The other principle actors are increasingly looking older than they are meant to be, as the films fails to keep up with the one adventure per year of the stories. At this rate, the final instalment will be called Harry Potter and the Tedium of the Pension Queue. Despite this, the not so young ‘uns continue to do a decent job, ably supported by a fine cast of more experienced actors. Michael Gambon returns for a second spell (excuse pun) as headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and does a good job despite failing to capture the twinkle in the eye that the late Richard Harris originally brought to the role.

I’m a fan of the novels, and personally I don’t think the films live up to the books. I find that the films are all perfectly enjoyable at the time but a bit forgettable after the event. This is probably the best of the Potter films so far, so if you think my assessment of the previous Potter’s is a bit harsh, you can expect to enjoy this very much. If you didn’t like the earlier films, this is maybe the time to give Harry and co another chance.

Click here or the Damaris study guide on the novel version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Howl's Moving CastleCover
(Optimum, certificate U)

Animation like it used to be, before they came up with this new-fangled computer generated malarkey. Hiyao Miyazaki’s follow up to Spirited Away (one of my favourite DVD releases of 2004) retains the supernatural trappings of its predecessor, but with a story that is probably more accessible to viewers who are less committed to the weirder aspects of the genre.

The Wizards and spirits are still out in force, along with the typical Miyazaki theme of a young girl forced reluctantly into a lengthy quest with companions who she gathers along the way. This time there is a central love story that is both subtler and stronger than before, as well as a message highlighting personal integrity, finding your place in the world and the stupidity of war.

If this one passed you by, it’s well worth investigating. Optimum are also currently releasing a host of Miyazaki’s previous films – he’s been dubbed ‘the Japanese Walt Disney’, and frankly Walt should be flattered by the comparison – so if you are falling under the spell of one of Eastern cinema’s brightest lights, you can look forward to many hours of enchanted delight.

Everything Is IlluminatedCover
(Warner Independent Pictures, certificate 15)

A quirky and enjoyable road-trip romp through modern day Ukraine, in the company of a self-styled disco superstar, a curmudgeonly grandfather and a mild-mannered yet obsessive collector on a quest to uncover the past. Elijah Wood continues his fascinatingly unglamorous post-Frodo career, playing an American Jew trying to track down his family history. The film offers an intoxicating blend of independent spirit, Ukrainian folk-punk music and moments of idiosyncratic comedy. The title is an abbreviation of ‘everything is illuminated by the past’, and the big revelations that the film has in store for its protagonists underline that truism, while also showing that we don’t have to be trapped by the past. A powerful, engaging gem that deserves a wider audience.

Click here for the Damaris study guide to Everything Is Illuminated.

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