The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Director : Andrew Adamson
Screenplay : Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (based on the book by C.S. Lewis)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Georgie Henley (Lucy Pevensie), Skandar Keynes (Edmund Pevensie), William Moseley (Peter Pevensie), Anna Popplewell (Susan Pevensie), Tilda Swinton (White Witch), James McAvoy (Mr. Tumnus), Jim Broadbent (Professor Kirke), Kiran Shah (Ginarrbrik), James Cosmo (Father Christmas), Judy McIntosh (Mrs. Pevensie), Elizabeth Hawthorne (Mrs. MacReady), Patrick Kake (Oreius), Shane Rangi (General Otmin), Liam Neeson (Aslan)
Everything about The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, including its lengthy, colon-demarcated title (which The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman amusingly likened to “a verbal freight train”) and its New Zealand locations, immediately brings to mind Peter Jackson’s magnificent The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which less than two years ago swept away both awards and billions of dollars. Although more than robust enough to stand on its own, The Chronicles of Narnia has always been The Lord of the Rings’ likable, but slightly dorky cousin--fantasy for kids whose parents didn’t let them see PG-rated movies.
When C.S. Lewis wrote his seven-part series, which was roughly during the same period that fellow Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien was penning his fantasy trilogy, it was written as both a Christian allegory and, as the first book’s subtitle attests, “A Story for Children.” Although the book and the faithful film adaptation can be seen both ways, there are some aspects of the tale that will undoubtedly take on Christian significance in the eyes of those looking for it, most notably the lion hero’s decision to sacrifice himself for another. Of course, it doesn’t help that Disney is marketing the film so heavily to churchgoers, not for any genuinely spiritual purpose, but simply to ensure that they reap the same dollars that Mel Gibson did with The Passion of the Christ a year and a half ago.
One of the things about Narnia that distinguishes it from much fantasy literature is its clear grounding in then-contemporary reality. The four Pevensie children--worrisome oldest brother Peter (William Moseley), logical middle daughter Susan (Anna Popplewell), brooding middle son Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and innocent little Lucy (Georgie Henley)--first discover the wonderful world of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe in an old professor’s house because they’ve been sent away from London to escape the Nazi’s bombing raids. In fact, the film emphasizes this by opening the film in the middle of a blitz, taking us from the cockpit of a German fighter down to the ground where the children must dash from their house and into a bomb shelter.
The world of Narnia, however, does not offer them peace and solace, but rather another form of tyranny and impending war. The land has been frozen for 100 years by the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton), and the peaceful inhabitants of Narnia--which include anthropomorphized animals like beavers and foxes, as well as mystical creatures such as fauns and griffins and unicorns--are awaiting the return of the messianic lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the true king. There is a prophecy that two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve will help defeat the Witch’s evil and restore peace to the land, becoming kings and queens themselves. Naturally, the children are a bit skeptical of this, particularly the older Peter and Susan, but they soon accept their burden. The only real holdout is the Judas-like Edmund, whose surly disposition and constant jealousy leads him right into the arms of the White Witch, who promises him candy and princedom.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a $180 million undertaking, and co-financiers Disney and Walden Media are no doubt keeping their fingers crossed that this will be the beginning of a new series that will guarantee boffo box office every 18 months ala Harry Potter. To bring the story to life, Disney brought on director Andrew Adamson, a seemingly strange choice given that his only directorial experience was co-helming Disney-rival DreamWorks’ two Shrek films. Adamson began as a special effects supervisor, which makes it all the more surprising that his Narnia film remains impressively restrained in its effects until the final third, when it finally unleashes the CGI hoards. The majority of the digital work is used to bring to life the talking animals, most of whom are impressively enough rendered to not draw attention to themselves. If the film has one outstanding characteristic, it is that it creates a genuinely palpable alternative universe, made all the more meaningful because it supposedly exists on the backside of our own.
However good it is, though, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe never quite soars. It is clearly aimed at children (especially given its four child protagonists, all very well-mannered British schoolchildren), and thus it never pushes any envelopes, even when it breaks into all-out war. It is all well done, but there is an inescapable sense of “been there, seen that” hanging over the proceedings; how many times in the past five years have we seen massive digital armies fighting it out?
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any standouts, though. The sequence in which Aslan allows himself to be killed by the White Witch for Edmund’s sins is the film’s one truly emotional moment, even for those who don’t read it as symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice. Yet, even Aslan’s digital glory can’t compete with the screen presence of Tilda Swinton as the White Witch; she channels some kind of icy inner fascism and elevates her character to the standing of truly memorable screen villainess. The magnificence of nobility is the ultimate message, but it’s made all the stronger for having vanquished an evildoer so richly deserving.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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