A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE jjj

2005, PG, 139 mins.

White Witch: Tilda Swinton / Lucy Pevensie: Georgie Henley / Edmund Pevensie: Skandar Keynes / Peter Pevensie: William Moseley / Susan Pevensie: Anna Popplewell

And the voices of:
Aslan: Liam Neeson / Mr. Beaver: Ray Winstone / Mrs. Beaver: Dawn French / Mr. Fox: Rupert Everett

Directed by Andrew Adamson /  Screenplay by Ann Peacock, Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / Based on the novel by C.S. Lewis

The new film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE is going to draw obvious comparisons to another famous fantasy populated by hobbits and dark lords.

Lewis’ good friend and colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien, was the same man behind the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, as if I needed to tell you.  Both shared time at Oxford and Tolkien can take claim to have produced and published his now world-revered books shortly before Lewis decided to embark on a literary fantasy of his own.  Although Lewis’ work came after his friend’s in the mid-to-late 1950’s, his NARNIA novels became more instantly popular – especially with young children – well before Tolkien’s vision of Middle Earth.  It would take subsequent paperback editions – published nearly a decade later – for THE LORD OF THE RINGS to be discovered by college students and the rest is proverbial history.

Despite which was popular first and was discovered quicker by a legion of diehard fans, there is unmistakable congruence between both Lewis' and Tolkien's novels.  They both incorporate what I think is the single greatest and most prevalent model for what makes a great escapist fantasy – the notion of the journey into the unknown.  Both involve small heroes (Tolkien’s were literally small; Lewis’ were small based on their limited years).  Both books involve these heroes taking long and oftentimes ostentatious treks into uncharted territory.  Both books involve epic tales of good versus evil.  Both books have lush, descriptive, and sweeping mythical landscapes that help forge a universe altogether their own.  More important than anything, both Lewis and Tolkien gave legitimacy to a genre that helped pave the way for future successes by others in fantasy, both literary and cinematically.

However, there are some discrete - but perceptible - differences between the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth.  Perhaps the largest single difference is in how the authors respectively pitched their ideas to a different audience of readers.  THE LORD OF THE RINGS is indisputably darker and more somber in terms of tone and mood (there always seems to be an unyielding level of dread that occupies the heroes at every turn).  Narnia, by direct comparison, feels like LORD OF THE RINGS-light, and by no means to I say this as a direct complaint.  Lewis’ envisioned world feels more alive, vibrant, and colorful.  He inhabited his universe with bold and imaginative beasts, like centaurs, unicorns, many talking animals of an assorted variety (like wolves and – yes – beavers, not to mention that he even has, at one point, a particular jolly old man in a red suit that hails from the North Pole and seems to like dealing in weapons.  The latter, in hindsight, may not be the most politically correct form that St. Nick has assumed).

Yes, NARNIA is a quirky and lively epic for the pre-teen, juvenile sect.  How anyone can doubt this is beyond me (the main characters are, themselves, young children, which leads to instant levels of resonation with the readers).  Perhaps even more than Tolkien’s world, Lewis’ NARNIA takes great pains to have more fun with its underlying material.  His books focus more on pure awe and wonderment (another staple of great escapist fantasy), especially in how his child characters discover a strange new world and all of the perilous consequences it will subsequently entail.  Perhaps most prevalent is NARNIA’s not-so-subtle religious symbolism, apparently so much so that it appealed to those of a stridently Christian bent.  More discussion on the theological aspects of the work later.

It seems like making Lewis’ work into a pure cinematic reality seemed like an impossibly daunting task years ago.  Yet, I was surprised in my research to discover just how many times his works have been adapted.  This new film version is the first major motion picture appropriation of the material done with scope and scale, but NARNIA had its first inception on radio.  Its second version was a ten part TV series, which was produced after Lewis died, followed by a 1979 animated edition and yet another 3 hour BBC TV version in 1988.  The TV versions, if the recollections by some of my friends that have seen them mean anything, were laughably inept. 

Well, Lewis-aholics owe Peter Jackson some due credit, as the success of his hugely successful versions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS paved the way for the film adaptation of NARNIA.  Under the helm of Andrew Adamson – who himself is no stranger to making films that involve flights of fancy (he's the New Zealander whose previous films included animated fables like SHREK) - this NARNIA could be called the definitive adaptation.  It sure does encapsulate, visually at least, the pageantry and imagination of Lewis world very successfully.  Beyond that, Adamson’s film does a fairly decent job of getting the myth and magic of Lewis’ work correctly and it does so by appeasing all audience members.  It’s meant for children, per se, but it does not slavishly talk down to them. It’s rated PG and is viscerally much more sanitized than Jackson’s previous blood and gore baths in the RINGS films, but it’s not as light-hearted all the time as one may expect.  More often than not, though, Adamson’s film is a fairy tale aimed to inspire and entertain.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of NARNIA that I think successfully segregates itself from RINGS is how it grounds itself – initially at least – in a past, earthly reality, maybe to make the story feel more close to home.  This concept is nothing new to students of escapism (Dorothy was whisked away from her Kansas home to a magical world as well).  The film opens, surprisingly, during the height of World War II, during which the four Pevensie children – Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keyes) and Lucy (the absolutely adorable and delightfully spirited Georgie Henley) are evacuated by their mother from their London home during a bombing campaign.  They are then taken to the house of a rather enigmatic Professor named Kirke (the always eccentric and colourful Jim Broadbent).  The house – in and itself – is like a fantasy world all of its own, with long, dark hallways and strange rooms that appear to be off limits to all.

One day while the kids try to starve off boredom with a random game of hide-and-seek, the young Lucy makes an enormous discovery – a mysterious wardrobe closet.  She opens the door and steps in.  After walking a few feet through it she is then magically transported to the fabled world of Narnia (this scene has direct echoes of a similar one with Judy Garland emerging in OZ).  She soon makes a quick friend in a faun name Mr. Tummus (the jolly and funny James McAvoy).  He invites her for some tea and later explains that his world is trapped in the grips of a 100-year winter, during which Christmas is never celebrated, all as a result of the rule of the vile White Witch (the glorious and despicably evil Tilda Swinton).  Of course, Lucy returns to tell of her marvelous exploits, all to the obvious ridicule and contempt of her siblings (also, why the room that houses the magic wardrobe was not under lock and key is beyond me, but never mind).

Nevertheless, Lucy does return to Narnia with her family, who now “believes” her story.  Edmund, to the family’s dismay, is seduced by the White Witch’s promise of the finest of earthly delights that all kids want – candy.  He succumbs to her dark side and betrays his family only to be imprisoned.  Lucy, Peter, and Susan soon realize their plight and must get help to save their brother.  Aid comes in the form of a pair of beavers (wonderful CGI creations voiced by Ray Winestone and Dwan French) who then take the kids to meet Aslan (voiced by the always noble Liam Neeson), who is a lion, but unquestionably a CGI Jesus figure who is to be the messiah of Narnia that will rid the world of the queen forever.  Aslan, the beavers, and the kids all plot their next move, all while being hunted by what I think is the best CGI talking wolves with salivating jaws that I certainly have seen.

This NARNIA film plays to many clear strengths, the first primarily on a visual level.  Adamson utilizes the same special effects wizards of New Zealand’s Weta Shop that created the world of Jackson’s RINGS films.  NARNIA does not have the grandeur and majesty of Jackson’s efforts, nor does it have the same level of polish in some of the effects, but they are a sight to behold indeed.  The animated animals are among the best of their kind, as are all of the other magical creatures that are blended in seamlessly into the action.  Aslan is especially effective and well realized.  He does not look “realistic” and he is not supposed to.  He’s a larger than life entity.  Filming with a real lion, for example, and then animated its lips talking would oddly destroy the peculiar allure of his character. 

The film, like RINGS, also seems to stray away from its narrative and transform into a full-blown action picture by its conclusion (this is, no doubt, a cinematic conceit to appease modern film audiences).  Even more ironic is how both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s books only loosely focus on action and carnage and how the films heavily focus on it.  I guess I can understand why Jackson would focus a bit more on violent mayhem in his battles in RINGS, but I question the level of destruction and death in what otherwise is a children’s parable in NARNIA. 

There is no denying the film’s awesome skill and precision with realizing these moments, especially with a concluding battle that involves the Witch’s armies fighting Aslan’s, all populated with thousands of creatures of all mythical and grandiose stature.  However, it becomes a bit too ham-infested to buy into how some of the children become overnight gladiators that are able to wield off warriors of three times their size while their fellow larger creature companions fall to their deaths.  The battles here are also largely bloodless, which is not in itself a criticism (I realize the target audience here, folks) but it creates a war that lacks tension and pathos.  In Jackson’s films you feel the toil, burden, and harsh reality of war on its heroic combatants; in NARNIA it feels whitewashed and hygienic – you never once fear that the kids are in any harm.

Perhaps the best visual effects in the film are the performances by some of the child actors.  This is especially true of little Georgie Henely, who at one point in the film captures the tone and spirit absolutely right of what it would actually be like for a kid to be instantly transported to a strange foreign world.  Her initial reactions – all done with an unblinking and wide-eyed exuberance and a twinkling smile – hint back to individual moments in THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Her performance radiates with charm and plucky charisma and she grounds the film emotionally.  He other siblings, played by William Mosely and Skander Keyes, are adequate in their respective roles.  The only weak link and character is that of Susan, who feels more like a redundant and superfluous entity that complains a lot and does very little else.  Broadbent’s role as the professor is fun, but also lacking in overall presence.

Now, some mention must be made in regards to the “controversial” religious overtones to the film.  “Controversial” seems like a foolhardy term spearheaded by the press as, honestly, there is none to be had.  Yes, Lewis’s works are allegorical, but I simply don’t see them as seminal “Christian films” in the literal sense.  If I am going to discuss some of the more in-your-face religious allusions, then the film has some, to be sure.  Aslan is observably a Christ figure that sacrifices himself for Edmund’s sins (I guess you can read into the notion that Edmund is a Judas figure as a direct result).  Aslan also gets resurrected later to do battle with the Witch (Is she Satin?  I dunno...I guess if you read that much into it) in a final confrontation that may have many Christians whispering “Revelation.”  One thing is for certain – the Bible did not have cute, talking beavers in it, as far as my sparse knowledge of that book goes.

Okay - innocent sarcasm aside - I guess I find the fascination with which the Christian community has displayed with the Narina books and current film somewhat odd and ironic.  It’s "odd" in the sense that they have embraced this film and books that inspired it more than, say, THE MATRIX TRILOGY, which for my money has a more literal religious implications with its messiah figure (Neo is easily an identifiable Christ persona who "dies", so to speak, is resurrected, and later dies again for humanity).  There is also overt religious mythology and symbols in other pervasive escapist fantasies like STAR WARS (Anakin Skywalker was born a virgin birth and was “the chosen one”, even the force as a concept has spiritual implications).  Hell, even SUPERMAN is subtly religious in themes (one could postulate that Jor-El - God - sends his only son, Kal-El – Christ – to rescue humanity). 

Am I reaching out a bit too far with the latter few examples?  Maybe…but maybe not as much as some would with NARNIA.  I guess Christian fascination with NARNIA is also “ironic” because Lewis himself, by his own admission, never intended his books to be ostensibly religious works, but rather adventure yarns with themes that ring with familiarity.  Tilda Swinton, in a recent interview for the film, maybe summed it up best by saying that one could "make a religious allegory out of anything if that's what you're interested in."  At least in my eyes, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA is about as “Christian” of a film as STAR WARS or THE MATRIX.  More than anything, NARNIA is less a spiritual film than it is a mythical fantasy and old-fashioned adventure tale crossed with the sensibilities of a modern, special effects laden action picture.  In pure hindsight, there really is no silly religious "controversy" at all.

Honestly, discussing all of the religious overtones doesn’t really matter.  NARNIA remains a good and decent entry into a now thriving genre of film fantasy that was given life by the likes of George Lucas and Peter Jackson.  Adamson’s film can’t really hold a candle to their works (those expecting the sheer scale, density, and imposing range of the visuals in STAR WARS or LORD OF THE RINGS will surely be disappointed).  NARNIA is not those films' equal, but it works well at what it tries to be – a fable for young minds that is imbued with notions of family love, trust, betrayal, redemption, sacrifice, and - yes - good ultimately defeating evil.  In our times if nihilism in the modern movie world, there is nothing wrong with instilling honorable concepts in young minds. =======================

NOTE: This film is rated PG, and it is unquestionable lighter and more kid-centric than THE LORD OF THE RINGS films.  However, I found that it also was very intense in its many moments and could have been more appropriately rated PG-13.  The film is fine for older children, but taking young ones should be done with discretion.

 

CrAiGeR's OTHER

 

REVIEWS:

 

THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER  (2005) jj1/2

  PRINCE CASPIAN (2008)  jj

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of HARRY POTTER films:

 

1.  THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005) jjj

2.  THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (2010) jj1/2

3.   PRINCE CASPIAN (2008) jj

 

 

 

 

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