The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

It’s difficult to parse out the associations–literary, symbolic, mythic, etc.–from the intrinsic merits of this first installment of the Narnia series. I say it’s difficult because we live in a time when, as a society, we seem to be craving these primal, communal, iconic representations of good triumphing over evil: The popularity of The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter films/books, this season’s King Kong, and the anticipation for next year’s Superman are all obvious proof. We live in times when our collective morale has hit rock bottom, or close to it.

Nothing in our world right now–the way its leaders are running it (especially our own)–jives with our ingrained sense of what is right, good, just, real. So we seem to be craving these simple yet direct allegories to wash out the bad taste of our daily realities, maybe more so now than, well, anytime since the Vietnam Era. Joseph Campbell, in discussing the timeless appeal of myths, mentions how human beings have always looked to these good-over-evil storylines to palliate our moral and mortal fear of the world around us. I think mass audience movies–the popular arts, in general–are meant to appeal to us on a very fundamental, simplistic level. It’s how myths convey their meanings–by appealing to our hearts, not our brains. The brain, moreover, is an overrated organ, anyway: The world isn’t going to improve on brainpower, but on “heartpower” (as corny as that sounds). All this is a roundabout way of pointing out that it’s tough to address Andrew Adamson’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s books. As a movie, it’s professionally competent and well paced, and touches on all the traditional tropes of the fantasy-adventure genre.

So, having said all that, The Lion, The Witch… is a Christian allegory in which four siblings–the Pevensies–having escaped from the London Blitz of WWII, find sanctuary in a country manor. There, upon entering a mysterious wardrobe closet, they chance upon a magical land fallen under the gloomy spell of the so-called White Witch (Tilda Swinton). Talking beavers inform the incredulous children of a prophecy in which four humans, one day, will aid Narnia’s forces of good–led by Alsan, a properly majestic lion and the story’s Christ figure–in vanquishing the White Witch and restoring peace and joy to Narnia. Soon, the siblings find themselves preparing for an imminent battle with the White Witch over the fate of Narnia.

Along the way, in order to save the children from jeopardy, Aslan sacrifices himself. This is no spoiler–Aslan’s self-sacrifice is central to Lewis’s Christ allegory–while the children, backed by a loyal legion of mythical and magical creatures, do battle with the White Witch, backed by her army of fearsome beasts. I found Lewis’s story, as filmed by Andrew Adamson, enormously simplistic and, perhaps for that reason, enormously effective. The parable of the Christ figure saving a world under the shadow of evil through pure faith and goodness is eternally resonant in our world, answering our need for self-realization and redemption in our daily lives. So, I think to a significant degree, this movie trades on the easy but powerful emotions. The question is: Does the movie do so on its own merits?

Adamson’s direction, for its part, is straight-ahead, workmanlike, with little flair outside the bounds of Lewis’s blueprint. The movie’s CGI, on the whole, is excellent, especially the chattering animals and the climactic battle sequence–which, by the way, can’t escape being a minor knockoff of Peter Jackson’s ground shattering work in LOTR. Then, again, fairly or not, all fantasy-adventures will hereupon be compared to LOTR. The acting is solid enough–the children give innocent, guile-free performances, Tilda Swinton’s authority on screen elevates every scene she’s in, and there’s nice clean-up work from the always-marvelous Jim Broadbent in a role that’s much too short.

That brings me to the movie’s main flaw: its script. While Narnia breezes by, even at 140 minutes, I felt its characters needed padding out. The story could do with more scenes up-front of the Pevensie siblings and their mutual bond, and, likewise, more scenes of Broadbent’s Professor Kirke, with his wisps of quirky wisdom, and more of a sense of Narnia itself. Unlike Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth, Adamson’s Narnia doesn’t feel like a place unto itself, living and breathing, but just an extension of the plot. Its textures and borders don’t feel lived-in, but, rather, perfunctory, a sort of generic Never-Never Land, akin to a child’s run-of-the-mill fantasy daydream. Still, Narnia’s overall production is fabulous, and the story’s religious symbolism and mythic appeal transfers to the screen intact. My guess is that The Lion, The Witch… will appeal to our jaded, consumer- and cynicism-driven age and to all of us in need of a jab of earnest, old-fashioned moralism to save the day. There are plenty of us out there who need it right now.

Grade: B

Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Written by: Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Cast: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anne Popplewell, Tilda Swinton, Jim Broadbent, James McAvoy

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