The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
I have never read one single word from C.S. Lewis’ classic children?s tales, The Chronicles of Narnia. I have never read one word from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings tomes either. I read five pages in Dune and returned it to the library (50-page glossary of vernacular my ass!). I have also never read one word of any Harry Potter book, and I’m quite all right with that. I have several friends that were consumed by Lewis’ series in their childhoods and now are consumed by J.K. Rowling’s series. I don’t confess to be geek-free; I read the Shanara series by Terry Brooks when I was in junior high. I collected comic books, I watched cartoons, I still do both to an extent, but I suppose I left the fantasy genre with my appreciation for flannel all the way back in junior high (I also discovered women). Whenever I enter a fantasy film I bring with me no baggage. And so I strolled into The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ready to be entertained by a good story, whether Lewis, a big Christian theologian and author, was advancing some kind of Christian allegory or not. After seeing all 125 minutes, it’s safe to say I’ll be in line for any potential sequels.
In the heat of WWII, the Pevensie children are being transported out of London to live with a kindly professor (Jim Broadbent) on a safe rural farm. Peter (William Moseley) is the oldest and assumes the leader position vacated by their departed father. Susan (Anna Popplewell) is the brainiest, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) is the moodiest, and little Lucy (Georgie Henley) is the precocious true believer.
One day during a game of hide and seek Lucy hides in an upstairs wardrobe. To her delight and amazement, she is transported to a magical, snow-covered realm known as Narnia. She encounters a faun, half man-half hoofed animal, named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy). He’s shocked to see a live human girl before his eyes and invites her for tea. There’s an old prophecy that says when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve arrive then the 100-year winter will end. The evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton), the one ruling Narnia with an icy fist, wants the humans captured and dead so she can rule forever. Lucy tells her siblings about her amazing adventures but they don?t believer her, that is, until they all tumble forth into the land of Narnia. The older kids mostly want to return home, but Edmund has sold them out by aligning with the White Witch. Now they’re on the run from her pack of wolves and the Pevensie children must seek out the powerful Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), a heroic lion who is all that stands in the way of the White Witch.
I declare my undying love for Tilda Swinton, truly the best character actress we have working today. Swinton already gave one bizarre yet outstanding performance this year as the androgynous angel Gabriel in Constantine (Swinton does androgyny better than anyone else; hell, she was convincing as a man and a woman in Orlando). In Narnia, Swinton exhumes a chilly command that could make you stand at attention. She’s such a hostile, icy, stone-faced villain, and Swinton has such calm confidence the whole time. She preens like a rock star and has the oversized ego to boot. She’s the kind of bad girl you could really fall in love with, especially if you have monstrous maternal issues.
The rest of the actors are mostly good. Henley steals every scene she’s in, and I’m not talking about the added attention of her suitable British choppers (my apologies to U.K. readership). Neeson seems a little bored with yet another wise teacher role just this year. I would be more interested in hearing the original voice of Aslan, the stupendous Brian Cox (Troy). McAvoy has a gentle sweetness to him.
Director Andrew Adamson integrates the flashy computer effects with surgical-like precision. Adamson?s experience as co-director for the Shrek films has given him the know-how to coordinate massive effects sight unseen and still coherently direct his live-action actors (ahem, George Lucas, ahem). The special effects in Narnia are outstanding. The characters move and behave with staggering authenticity (I know most of these creatures are mythical and have no comparison). The vistas and landscapes are beautiful, particularly the winter wonderland of Narnia. Adamson has a keen eye for visuals and lavishly recreates his visions; the climactic battle is bloodless but no less exciting.
Most of the story flaws come from the source material. Narnia lacks the epic scope of the Lord of the Rings movies as well as the seriousness. As a result, no one feels very much in danger even during the more harrowing moments of battle. Lucy’s gift of “resurrection juice” kind of let’s the air out of the tension balloon. What suspense is there if a character has a magical healing elixir they can just whip out? The two girls are removed from the final battle and have little impact on its outcome. The White Witch’s tactic of freezing her enemies instead of killing them seems to be foolish, especially when they can be thawed at inopportune times. A major character’s sacrifice seems a tad superfluous if he can just reappear, lickity split like he had an extra life. Lots of secondary characters get the shrift when it comes to characterization, so you feel less than you should when something happens to them; this is even further hampered by Lucy’s Jesus Juice.
There’s a real genial sense of magic to Narnia. When little Lucy first transports to this magic realm, her face lights up in that adorable cherubic way, she wafts through the falling snow, catching it with her hands. Her moments with Mr. Tumnus are note-perfect from the dialogue, to the vocal inflections, to where the scene leads. Their relationship is very tender and provides some of the film’s best moments. Looking back, I can pick apart the movie, but while I was sitting in my theater I was deeply surprised how affected I was. I felt their fear, I felt their sorrow, and most of all I felt some sense of magic. The logic part of my brain was telling me how silly it was to see Santa Claus, let alone witness jolly ole Saint Nick handing out weapons for all the little good girls and boys (“Ho ho ho, kill ’em good for Santa.”). Yet while I watched I never questioned these things. The power of Narnia had taken full hold of me and I was swallowed whole by its tale.
Narnia is a good entry point for children in the world of fantasy. It’s suspenseful without being scary, and familiar without being too simplistic. Unlike Tolkien’s complicated worlds and heavy tales, Narnia is more a children’s story, what with the inclusion of unicorns, centaurs, fauns, and a menagerie of talking animals. There’s the suitable kid fantasy, like becoming king and fighting monsters, but there’s also a focus on family reconciliation and being accountable for your own actions. This isn’t a story that will overwhelm its audience but will leave them hungry for more adventures. The characters are mostly sketches (the leader who doesn’t want to be a leader, the overly logical one, the disaffected youth constrained by too much discipline, the little believer in the unknown), so it’s a testament to the filmmakers that the story and the characters have as much resonance as they do. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe sets up the parameters of the Narnia universe and its inhabitants and now future sequels can add meat to this bare skeleton. Narnia is a fantasy film the whole family can enjoy.
The Christian allegories and metaphors mostly fly under the radar, with the exception of one extremely obvious scene that might make Mel Gibson wince. I even think Narnia is better enjoyed as a straight-up story than as an elaborate series of codes and messages harkening toward Christianity. If you view Narnia with the intent to break down its meaning and supplant connection to the Bible, then you’re really missing out on some great storytelling. And Narnia isn’t outwardly religious; it’s mostly a film preaching good values rather than simply good Christian values. Most of the lessons and values taught within Narnia are universally applicable to all people.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a superbly entertaining retelling of C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s series. Adamson connects all the expected fantasy dots while seamlessly incorporating awe-inspiring special effects. The bountiful imagination up onscreen is the film’s biggest charm, rendering a divine touch of magic to the finished proceedings. Despite any better judgment pointing out the simplicity of the tale and characters, the production is first class and compelling. I was completely surprised how affecting I found the film and how immersed I became. This is great storytelling aided by gifted storytellers. Narnia is bigger than a family film, more accessible than a “Christian movie,” and more entertaining and endearing than most films released this year by Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on December 9, 2005, in 2005 Movies and tagged action, andrew adamson, book, christianity, drama, fantasy, james mcavoy, jim broadbent, liam neeson, period film, tilda swinton, war. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.