The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Movie Review

Since the first comparison made with C.S. Lewis' Narnia fantasy series is to his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books, it is worth noting that - as recently mentioned in the New Yorker - Tolkien hated the Narnia books because their ideological underpinnings constrained the fiction itself. Tolkien was as devoutly religious as Lewis but you didn't see the hobbits going to church on Sunday; Middle Earth was a pretty pagan land where mythology, not theology, was the rule of the day. Lewis was a different sort, of course, and though the seven Narnia books were brilliant fantasy, they also had an irksome tendency towards preachiness. This same problem afflicts The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the (potentially) first Chronicles of Narnia film, a crass product of merchandised morality from Disney and Walden Media, a media company owned by Christian evangelist billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Director Andrew Adamson makes his live-action debut here after the two Shreks, but it's an easy transition for him, given that a good portion of the film has a CGI/character complexity ratio about as high as the last few Star Wars films. Although Narnia doesn't lend itself well to the cheeky pop culture reference-o-rama that Shrek did, it shares those films' same treacly sentimentality and market-researched plasticity.

Being nothing if not cleverly modern, the film begins in Harry Potter fashion, with the four Pevensie children being whisked out of the London Blitz on a Hogwarts-looking train to a castle-like old house in the country where a grumpy housekeeper and a magical wardrobe awaits. The normal-seeming wardrobe is actually - if you enter it at the right time and push through all the fur coats to the back - a gateway to the fantastical world of Narnia. The youngest Pevensie, cherub-cheeked 10-year-old Lucy (Georgie Henley, almost too adorable), does just that during a game of hide and seek and finds herself in a snowy wood near an incongruous gaslight, silently hissing in the wintry gloaming. She meets a faun named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), who invites her back to his warren for some tea. It's a perfect little retreat for the gleaming Lucy, even if she may know that eventually her older siblings will also show up and ruin her whole adventure. Unfortunately for viewers, their presence will also help ruin the film.

When The Chronicles of Narnia is concerned with Lucy and the wood, it gets by just fine. McAvoy and Henley have some lovely scenes together, him scared of his own shadow and her eager to explore this snow-hushed world with a new friend. Adamson also perfectly captures the book's most iconic scene: the sorcerous gleam in the dark eyes of the White Witch Jadis (Tilda Swinton, radiantly evil) when she comes across Lucy's treacherous brother Edmund (Skander Keynes) and plies him with sweets and just a hint of seduction to reveal information about his siblings. Unfortunately, once all the Pevensie kids come piling through the wardrobe - including mopey Susan (Anna Popplewell) and irritatingly blonde Peter (William Moseley) - the film moves on to bigger but not better things.

The kids have shown up at dire times for Narnia: Jadis rules with an iron fist, having kept the country locked in winter for a century. Revolt is brewing, though, amongst the many charming, talking animal species of Narnia (everything from beavers to centaurs), and word is that the arrival of four sons and daughters of Adam (humans) presages the return of the great lion Aslan - Churchill to Jadis' Hitler. Before long, the snow begins to thaw, war will be waged and the young Pevensies had better get with the right side before it starts. They must also endure, along with the rest of us, endless lessons in faith and family.

For those without the Cliff Notes, Aslan is Lewis' stand-in for the sacrificial Christ; not surprisingly he's also the least interesting element of the book and film. A truly magnificent creature, Aslan is nobility incarnate: wise and loving, stern but judicious, and voiced (as all surrogate father figures are in films these days) by a regal Liam Neeson. The story does what it can to introduce some doubt into the possibility that Aslan and the outnumbered forces of righteousness - a mythological mélange of brightly arrayed creatures - will triumph, but there's about as much suspense as in the New Testament.

An even more predictable development is when Chronicles shifts from Potter-esque whimsy (adorable British moppets running about in knee socks) to a Lord of the Rings-styled battle which has all the drama of a video game. In keeping to a PG rating, not to mention placating his Christian paymasters, Adamson makes war seem a pretty bloodless and painless affair; no big deal, really, especially when the outcome is so preordained and lacking in drama. There's a creepy element to this glossing over of violence, especially given how affected Lewis was by his World War I experiences, and the fact that World War II is raging right on the other side of the wardrobe. There is, however, the sight of Swinton, with a sword in each hand, striking poses more fit for an avant-garde fashion runway than the battlefield - either a great camp moment or something painful to behold, depending on your disposition.

In Lewis' hands, Narnia was a loosely-sketched thing, a small country that one could comfortably walk across in a few days, never fully described with the same cartographic intensity of Tolkien. The books left plenty of holes for one's imagination, in between the cheeky talking otters and suspicious trees there was an entire world to conjure up in one's head. Once it leaves the snowy wood, Adamson's film makes the indescribable all too real, sadly. There's no hideous beast or CGI landscape rendered here that can compare with what lurks in the mind of even the dullest, least imaginative child.

Does this breastplate make me look fat?


Comments

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Rating

" Grim "

Rating: PG, 2005

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