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∑ 125 minutes
Directed by Andrew Adamson
Written by C.S. Lewis, Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
· Georgie Henley
· William Moseley
· Skandar Keynes
· Anna Popplewell
· Tilda Swinton
With the success of The Lord of the Rings, both in a financial sense and in its setting of new standards for fantasy epics, I had no doubt that a great many other long-neglected fantasy adventures would soon be making their way to the big screen, either for the first time or in a rejuvenated form. Quite possibly the first to ride the wave created by Peter Jackson is C.S. Lewisí The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Indeed, the buzz regarding its production status was already in the air even before the end credits of The Return of the King had finished rolling themselves out.
I would usually consider this trend a bad thing. Studios see a hit and suddenly everyone wants to get involved. In the case of Narnia, taking advantage of the new technology and audience enthusiasm has resulted in a good thing. At the very least, it is a grand improvement over the rather lifeless animated version and that hideous BBC mini-series beast.
Effectively orphaned by an enlisted father and a protective mother, the four Pevensie children are sent to live with Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) until London proper is safe from Hitlerís air forces. Oldest boy Peter (William Moseley) alienates the others in a good-hearted but immature attempt to be the father figure. Sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) flip-flops between agreeing with Peter and scolding him for overdoing it. Third-in-line Edmund (Skandar Keynes) sulks over everything, especially Peterís bossiness. And youngest Lucy (Georgie Henley) has a difficult time convincing the others that the antique wardrobe dresser in one of the upper rooms leads into a fantasy forest complete with a misplaced street lamp and a faun named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy).
But convince them she does, and eventually all four Pevensies find themselves in a magical world called Narnia. Narnia, they learn, suffers from a perpetual winter brought about by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who aims to rule the entire land and subjugate its citizens to her cruel dictatorship. Edmund has the misfortune to be seduced by the White Witchís charm and offers of greatness in exchange for delivering his siblings to her, thus placing himself in the position of a traitor, which eventually bites him back.
Although the White Witch fashions herself Queen, there is a higher King, a lion named Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), who has been absent for some time but now returns to Narnia to establish his own reign of peace, justice, righteousness Ė and springtime. Thus the foundations for an epic struggle between Good and Evil are laid.
Iím sure by now that anyone who has been conscious at all since December of 2005 is aware of Narnia, as well as C.S. Lewisís theological purposes behind the story. Most works in the Lewis collection are heavy-weight Christian essays, including Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and a host of others. He had a masterful way of presenting the logical arguments in favor of the existence of God, as well as debunking atheismís claim that Christianity and intelligence are mutually exclusive. His seven-volume series The Chronicles of Narnia was, therefore, off his usual well-beaten path.
With the Narnia books, Lewis converted central Biblical figures and doctrines into a fantasy format, undoubtedly for the purpose of making them more accessible to children. Edmund represents the average sinner, who is lured by the charms and treats that Satan (White Witch) holds out as bait. To rescue sinners like Edmund, Aslan must give his own innocent life, the same as how the Bible presents Jesus Christís self-sacrifice. There is more, but Christians reading this probably already know it and skeptics donít care.
So let it suffice to say that the film retains a great deal of the bookís theological thrust. And it does so with a high level of respect.
The screenplay by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely is close enough to the original material to be legitimately called a faithful adaptation. I donít recall there being quite that massive of a Final Battle in the book, but it is something this genre seems to require when arriving in Hollywood Ė at least in the minds of screenwriters and directors.
Adamson (Shrek) directs with great enthusiasm and bursts of extreme visual creativity that belie his past duty as a special effects supervisor for projects like Batman Forever. There are visual lulls and the occasional creative misstep - such as the highly repetitive format in which each child finds his way into Narnia - but overall Adamson demonstrates a firm grasp of the arts and sciences necessary to make a film like this.
Adamson has cast the film well. Child actors can be tricky, and there are moments when Moseley in particular does not seem to have a handle on how best to deliver some of his lines. As this appears to be his first role of any noteworthiness, I think he does a fine job. All four children look their parts, and their acting skills range from respectable to excellent, the latter adjective belonging primarily to Henley as Lucy. Another adjective for her would be, "adorable."
The show-stealer is Swinton (Orlando). She is effectively menacing and cruel and quite capable in her creation of a woman who is clearly holding her rage in check under the surface but who you just know will snap at any moment and destroy everything in her path. I knew how the story ended and yet I was still concerned at times for Edmund, largely due to Swintonís performance.
The art direction is quite good. Despite a general consensus that the film amounts to "Lord-of-the-Rings Lite," I found Roger Fordís production design much more appealing than its Tolkein counterpart. Certainly the visuals for the Rings movies are impressive, but they are also oppressive. Narnia is more colorful and endearing, and thus, for someone like me, more enjoyable. We do not have to bear up under nine hours of dismal greys; there are greens and blues and uplifting sights to keep our hopes alive. Even in its cursed winter season, Narnia is alluring.
Special effects here are hit and miss. There are scenes in which the effects stand out like a sore thumb. For instance, Iím still not impressed by CGI animals. Aslan never quite looks like he is actually there, standing with the others. He is, well, an effect.
On the other hand, there are effects that are brilliant. At least, I assume they are special effects. When you canít tell an effect is an effect, thatís when an effect is at its best. The one that caught my attention most by being so believable was the centaur. I have long ago decided that the Xanth novels by Piers Anthony should be made into movies, but would not want them adapted until there was technology is in place to create believable centaurs. So I was watching the centaurs in Narnia extra close. And I believed them. I shall commence writing to Mr. Anthony.
The single biggest detractor from my enjoyment of the film is the music track. I suppose it was a desire to capitalize on the Enya numbers from Lord of the Rings that inspired the faux-Celtic piece that opens Narnia, but the piece is so jarringly wrong, not to mention lacking in whatever it is that makes Enyaís works so good. Out of nowhere a 1940s song plays over the children commencing their hide-and-seek activities. And more of the second-rate Celtic stuff closes the film. Harry Gregson-Williamsí score has some high points, but it falls into a synthetic pop beat far too often for a film set in England in the forties.
But of course, no matter how well it is made, not everyone will like the film. For one thing, those unfamiliar with the general theological principles involved will find some story points to be confusing. Why do these four children who actually do very little to lead the armies of Narnia get rewarded the way they do? What on earth is "the deep magic"? Why does the stone table break? By whose standard is Edmundís conversation with the White Witch an act of treason punishable by death? Whether or not you believe the Bible, the film will make a little more sense if you know what the Bible says about sin, forgiveness, and salvation. Even then, oneís level of enjoyment in watching the film will definitely be affected to a degree by oneís attitude toward its theological subtext.
So who is Narnia for? Is it for Christians? Or is it appealing enough to draw in a wider range of faiths and the faithless? Is it for kids? Or is there enough maturity in its fantasy to entertain adults? Well, as only one man who cannot speak for everyone, let me say that Iím a Christian in my early thirties whose favorite genre is fantasy-adventures.
And I liked it.