Along the Tracks

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

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

With the northwest Ohio winter now stretching into its fifth week practically unabated, we can all identify with the beautiful but oppressive white landscape of frozen Narnia. In Narnia, the frozen tundra is the doing of the White Witch. Here, it’s apparently global warming. Which is the more magical explanation I leave to your judgment.

In “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” great themes are explored at the comprehension level of children, as in C.S. Lewis’s superb seven books – the original “Chronicles.”

Snottier reviewers than I have agonized over the not-so-subtle parallels between this portion of the Lewis masterpiece and the Passion narrative in the four Gospels. They have every right to do so, and to demonstrate both their ignorance and their mendacity in doing so. Because of an uncomfortable scene of ultimate sacrifice, followed by ultimate victory, they blast the film as thinly-veiled evangelism. Yet a couple little-noted truths can quickly sweep away their specific objections.

First, this is a children’s film, based on a children’s book. Older children who regularly attend Sunday school may well see the similarities between Jesus Christ and the Son of God-like Aslan. Children without such a background – today a majority of kids, no doubt – will not find themselves converted as they exit the theater. Unless, that is, some Aslan cult springs up along the lines of those who consider themselves followers of the Jedi religion (as in Star Wars). In other words, while adult film critics may feel the resemblances too oppressive for their multicultural sensibilities, most kids will not recognize the movie as “religious” in any sense – as is the case for the book.

Second, the correspondences which are noticed by adults are not in any way cloaked, and certainly are not deceptive. To suggest the movie (or the book) proselytizes the unwary ignores about half a century of readership and criticism of Lewis’s Narnian universe. Lewis created a children’s fantasy world using Christianity’s central beliefs as themes. J.R.R. Tolkien (a good friend of Lewis) did the same thing with his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy for adults. Exploring deeper themes by weaving a narrative through a fictional world is not deceptive. It is story-telling. The critics may prefer to romp along with gay cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” but that movie is doing the same thing as “Narnia” or “Rings” or any other story. The critics simply like those themes better.

For all the controversy, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is a story about honesty and trust, deception and betrayal, unyielding love and redemption – hardly unusual themes. Children can appreciate the solid line of right and wrong in their stories, and “Narnia” delivers. While the characters may debate their choices, the audience never has any doubt where goodness lies. The dividing line is seen from the film’s beginning, the only extended addition to Lewis’s work. German bombers fill the sky during the London blitz, and we are introduced to the four Pevensie children as their mother herds them to the bomb shelter. Adolescent Peter (William Moseley) feels the pressure as man of the family by default, since Father is off to fight Hitler. Edmund (Skandar Keynes) chafes under the authority of his older brother. Susan (Anna Popplewell) is a bit of a know-it-all determined to be recognized as a young lady, not merely a child. Lucy (Georgie Henley) is the youngest, watching helplessly as her world is turned upside down.

The dangers in London force the children’s mother to send them into the country, to the estate of one Professor Kirke. While playing in the many rooms, Lucy hides in an old wardrobe which is a corridor into another world. Though summer in England, this world is snowbound. During Lucy’s adventure, she meets a faun, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), who tells her all about the land of Narnia, where a White Witch has frozen the land, making it “always winter and never Christmas.”

When Lucy returns from Narnia and tells her siblings, no one believes her. However, on a night just a short time later, Edmund follows Lucy into the wardrobe and finds himself in the world Lucy described. He is discovered by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who gives him magical treats and promises more if he brings his brother and sisters to her castle. Back on his own, Edmund bumps into Lucy, who guides him back into the wardrobe and England.

An excited Lucy runs into Peter’s room and awakens him with news that she had visited Narnia again – and this time Edmund came, too. Edmund commits his first betrayal when he lies, saying he doesn’t know what Lucy is talking about. Yet his cruel pleasure at hurting young Lucy angers Peter and Susan, even though they still think Lucy is merely engaged in fantasy.

Finally, a few days on, while seeking a place to hide from the housekeeper, Mrs. MacReady, all four children enter the wardrobe, wander further and further back until they are all standing in the Narnian snow.

With Edmund’s betrayal revealed, Peter and Susan scold the lad for his mean trick and brook no response from him. Edmund seethes. The four explore this new land and learn that Lucy’s friend, Mr. Tumnus, has been captured by the witch. As they make new friends and discuss how to rescue the faun, Edmund slips away to commit further betrayals, which draw these Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve (as the Narnians call them – perhaps the most overt biblical reference in the story) into the effort to overthrow the White Witch. As they do so, the Pevensies also discover their prophesied roles in Narnia and the potential for greatness which lies inside them.

The film is no warm, fuzzy tale of cheer. War, first introduced to the Pevensies in London, is a constant backdrop. This, too, has drawn critical ire, as any movie which “glorifies” battle inevitably is tagged as supportive of our present war – and nearly all critics are against American use of force. Lewis is hardly the first writer to argue through his fiction the necessity of fighting evil. Yet, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” challenges the notion that any can sit out the great confrontations of their day. In good versus evil, there is no middle of the road. Even Father Christmas (James Cosmo) gets into the act, as Santa breaks the “always winter, never Christmas” logjam by giving Peter a sword, Susan a bow and little Lucy a dagger. Although the girls are to use their weapons “only at utmost need,” they nevertheless must face the possibility. For Peter to become the leader long foretold, he will need to fight evil, and kill its servants. He struggles with this burden through the story until the battle has begun.

The violence is distant and rapid, never gruesome. Since most of the combatants are fantasy creatures such as talking animals, centaurs, giants and fauns, the bloodshed is less emotional – but make no mistake, it is present. What many critics miss in stories which utilize the crucible of war is how painful and sad the war itself is. The storyteller is not promoting war; the storyteller is laying out a terrible scenario which might impart a lesson: Expose and remove evil before it grows to a point of crisis.

As in the book, Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) is not a central character, but more of an idea which lingers in the background, urging on to greater deeds those who trust in his goodness. Aslan’s scenes merely reinforce this image, either by his words or by his selfless acts.

Being a children’s movie, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” has its limitations for adults. The characters (other than the Pevensies) are simple foils, for the most part. The story is primarily self contained, but those who have read the entire seven “Chronicles” are at an advantage, especially in understanding the curious Professor Kirke, the cold, cruel White Witch, Aslan’s pensive nature and the entire concept of “Deep Magic.” For children, who quickly identify with the Pevensies and their growing pains, the movie gallops through its 140 minutes – an impressive hold on young attentions.

Director Andrew Adamson holds close to Lewis’s book, and his few changes or expansions are well in line with the author’s intent. If you have read “The Chronicles of Narnia” series to a child, you and the child will feel the same emotions at the cinema as you did in the easy chair under the reading lamp.

If you have not read “The Chronicles of Narnia” series to a child – this movie will be the perfect spur to do so.

Your peice of writing is way to long so i am not really surprised that this is your only comment. Did you write this peice to bore people to death because frankly you have suceeded.
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