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:Film Review

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Dan Schneider

Question: What is The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe?
Answer 1: a more literate and less Byzantine Lord Of The Rings
Answer 2: a deeper and more realistic Harry Potter
Answer 3: a more mature Oz

If that Jeopardy style question threw you, so be it. Last night my wife took me to see the C.S. Lewis classic brought to screen by director Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame, or infamy), for it was a favorite childhood book of hers. In truth, I’ve never been a big fan of such fantasies, although I knew the general plot outline for the Narnia series. I’ve seen all three LOTR films, including the 1970s cartoon version (which was superior to the live action version), read only The Hobbit in high school, have not read any of the Harry Potter books, but thought the first three films in that series were superior to the vastly overrated LOTR trilogy in almost every way. As for Oz, I’ve, of course, seen the 1939 Judy Garland film classic, but only read the first two books of the several dozen in the L. Frank Baum series. I do, recall, however, an early 1970's cartoon film of one of the later Oz books that had Liza Minelli voice Dorothy. Yet, none of these film versions, at least, equal the current film version of the first of the Narnia books: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. In fact, if the book is anywhere near as good as the film then even Lewis Carroll’s mighty Alice books and Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio might have to move over as the reigning titans of children’s fantasy literature. Yes, I know many J.R.R. Tolkien fans will object to the LOTR series being classified a children’s fantasy, but too bad. Narnia is superior in virtually every way to LOTR, and Lewis wore the children’s tag with pride.

  How is it superior? For starters, Lewis was a vastly superior writer to Tolkien. Both men were friends who taught at Oxford, smoked pipes, were Christians, but serious rivals. While Lewis always praised Tolkien’s work, Tolkien was known to have enviously badmouthed Lewis’s Narnia at every opportunity. No wonder, Narnia bests LOTR in nearly all ways. Tolkien was so intent on describing every aspect of his Middle Earth that he forgot to concentrate on character development. Middle Earth is filled with deus ex machinae waiting to be sprung, while Narnia rises or falls on the protagonist kids’ pluck and intellect. From what I’ve read, Lewis’s tales are sparer, and the film reflects this. Plus, Lewis’s four children protagonists are in almost every way far more identifiable than the four main Hobbits of LOTR. The writing in the screenplay by Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Adamson, really captures the way siblings interact - in petty yet distinct ways. The fact that this film is also framed by the World War Two wartime desire to escape the blitzkriegs adds a depth of motivation and psychology to what is, essentially, a child’s fantasy. And because this fantasy is based in children’s psyches it is not weighed down with the turgid moralizing of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Also, it liberally borrows from pagan and Christian sources, whereas Tolkien basically ripped off the Arthurian legend cycle, and watered it down. Now, I am in no way, shape, nor form a religious person, but those who rail against Narnia often do so by claiming it is subversively Christian. If so, that does not filter through in this film. Yes, the lion king Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) is killed and resurrected. Except, that’s not what happens, as the lion explains to the two girls that true self-sacrifice can never be killed at the hands of evil. What epic does not rely on these themes? This predates Christianity by, oh- ten or so thousand years, at least! To try to tar the Narnia mythos as Christian activism is downright silly, and a sign of bigotry, even though Father Christmas (James Cosmo) makes an appearance.

The story follows four London kids- Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Peter Pevensie (William Moseley), in ascending chronological order of approximately 8, 12, 13, and 14- who are sent to the countryside to avoid the blitz by their mother (Judy McIntosh). Their father is off at war. They arrive at the estate of a rich Professor (Jim Broadbent) who has a cranky domestic the kids are terrified of. Young Lucy hides in a wardrobe in a deserted room during a game of hide and seek, and discovers the permanently hibernal kingdom of Narnia. She is befriended by a faun named Tumnus (James McAvoy), who warns her that humans are hunted in Narnia by the White Witch Jadis because four human children are prophesied to free Narnia from her wintry despotism. Jadis is played by Tilda Swinton, a good villainess, somewhere in looks between Cruella DeVille and Glenn Close, who portrayed DeVille in the live action version of 101 Dalmatians.

The foursome are known as the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. The other kids don’t believe her, until Edmund breaks a window with a cricket ball, and all four kids hide in the wardrobe. They go through a series of adventures where they eventually help free Narnia from the White Witch. The most interesting of the children, and the one whose character has the greatest range of emotion is Edmund. Skandar Keynes shows real acting chops, although Georgie Henley’s Lucy is the scene-stealing child that all such films have. Moseley’s Peter is the least interesting of the characters, although he is adequate with what he’s given, and Popplewell’s worrywart Susan seems to have little to do in the film, save be the fourth wheel. Yet, she has a winsome, intellectual quality that augurs she could be, in a few years, another Keira Knightly. And all four kids actually look like siblings- down to their noses.

There is a climactic battle, of course, replete with CG warriors of virtually every mythological stripe- centaurs, leprechauns, dwarves, dragons, etc., and while I have really tired of this- be it in LOTR-like fantasies, or biopics like Alexander- the film is not based upon the use of CG to sell it. The tale is the star here. And, yes, you know that in films like this the lion will survive, the kids will triumph, the White Witch will die, the frozen creatures will thaw, etc. But, the important point is not what will happen, but how. Perhaps Narnia truly is a Buddhist treatise- the journey being the point, rather than the destination.

This was especially evident in comparison to some of the previews we saw for upcoming children’s flicks- CG-driven vehicles like a sequel to Ice Age, a film about suburbia’s incursion of forest creatures, a tale of a polar bear who hides out in a garage, a Martin Lawrence-Ashton Kutcher vehicle about a bear and a caribou, and most ridiculously a CG film called Cars, about - yes, cars that talk! What mind-numbing crap is next? Toothbrushes? At least there was some respite as apparently a truly animated version of the old classic Curious George is coming to screen soon. This is why tales such as Narnia, or the Alice or Oz books need to be made into films, to counter the relentless dumbing down of culture that director Adamson helped create with his Shrek films. The effects in this film are far more impressive and convincing than in CG cartoons for they blend seamlessly. The DVD features should be superb. Not once does the film treat its four children condescendingly nor cloyingly. And with the four main protagonists being human, and going back and forth between the real and fantasy worlds, this film connects with children far more powerfully than Tolkien’s work could ever hope to. In short, it is grounded, and does not fly off into the Wagnerian operatics nor stentorian soliloquies that often sink LOTR into bloated camp. The main act of evil here is the seduction of Edmend by the White Witch with spiked candies called Turkish Delights. This one act of drugging and mind control, which plays off of the boys sibling resentments, is the cause for the battles ahead, not some discarnate evil, nor some ring. It takes a while for Edmund to realize his betrayals are the cause of his ruin, and later redemption, but we see, from his trying to save his father’s photo in the blitz, that he has a complexity his two older siblings may not have.

This is the result of a good screenplay, which is very hard to do for kids, for most children’s films lack that child-like wonder, as if the filmmakers have forgotten what childhood was like. Cinematographer Donald McAlpine captures that point of view in many of the child’s eye shots of vistas and the whimsy on the children’s faces. The only downside to the film is that, like many fantasies, you have to suspend logic. For example, why does Aslan need to wait a hundred years to bring an end to the White Witch’s eternal winter? He clearly has the power to do so at any time. The Prophecy’ has foretold that it can only occur when the four children arrive. But, this is part of the suspension of disbelief that all such tales require. The score works well, and never intrudes on the film, as it too often does in the LOTR trilogy, and the film’s credits end with a terrific song by Alanis Morissette.

I hope that this film does well enough that the remaining six books hit the screen, for with the amount of dreck being foisted at kids, these films will prove a nice respite. If only the Alice and Oz books are next on the film franchise conveyor belt, rather than Shrek 13 or Ice Age: Revenge Of The Neandertals. Click the heels your ruby slippers along with me. Please.

© Dan Schneider, - all the best in poetry and essays
December 16th 2005

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