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

| December 5, 2005

Heralded as the next big fantasy franchise to fill the void left by The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia movies begin with this, the first, safest, and most famous of the Narnia books. Perhaps this is an adaptation, however, that should have remained an idea.
Four English schoolchildren must retreat to the countryside to escape the German bombing campaigns of World War II. By train, they go to stay with a stodgy professor Kirke in a English manor full of dark mahogany and Byzantine hallways. Tucked far away from the strife of the war, they battle boredom and each other as the days pass. Peter, the oldest, lords it over his rebellious little brother Edmund. Susan usually sides with Peter, while Lucy, the youngest, inhabits a world of rich imagination. They are like most children; they squabble and argue and pretend to be grown-ups.
One day, they decide to play hide and seek. Finding a big empty room with a large wooden wardrobe, Lucy hides inside only to discover a doorway to another world, a place of great beauty stuck in eternal winter. Stumbling through the snowy wood, Lucy discovers a faun, Tomnas, who invites her back to his coy study for tea. But a deep evil lurks within the winter wonderland, and ”s new friend Tomnas reveals that he is going to kidnap her. In a moment of mercy, he lets her go. She returns to the wardrobe and tells her brothers and sisters. They don’t believe her.
That night, Lucy returns, followed by her brother Edmund. Back in the cold woods, Lucy revisits Tomnas, who she now calls friend. But Edmund runs into the evil White Witch who rules Narnia with a cold, flinty scepter, preventing Christmas for 100 years. Played by the hard-angled Tilda Swinton, the White Witch is regal and menacing, enraptured by her stranglehold on the frozen land. A veritable army of ogres and giants and pig-faced monstrosities serve under her reign. Seduced by her offer of endless Turkish delights, Edmund inadvertently betrays Lucy and Tomnas.
Eventually, all four children find themselves in the land they learn is called Narnia. And the adventure begins. For Narnia is a magic place, full of talking animals and mythical beings and ancient mystery. Both good and evil magic reside here, including Aslan, an all-powerful talking lion, the White Witch’s counterpart.
Peter, Lucy, and Susan find themselves the guests of two talking beavers, while Edmund becomes the prisoner of the White Witch. They learn of a prophesy concerning two daughters of Eve and two sons of Adam – future kings of the land – wherein the White Witch will be overthrown, Christmas will return, and an era of peace and prosperity will begin. In an attempt to prevent this from occurring, the White Witch marshals her forces and unleashes the dogs of war.
Up to this point, the film works well, full of child-like wonder. But cracks begin to form in the plot as the meddling of screenwriters becomes apparent. Some silly chase scenes and affected drama follow, where the children doubt their place and each other. Which is stupid – we are rooting for warrior children with pure hearts; no explanation is needed. The children head towards the far end of Narnia, where Aslan waits with an army of the righteous, centaurs and fauns and gryphons and badgers and eagles. All this to a faux Celtic score that sounds like a fusion of Manheim Steamroller and Enya that simply does not work.
Unlike the grand mythologizing of Tolkein – where an entire history was being created, complete with ancient languages and fallen empires, colored by deep, dark strains of guilty Catholicism, Lewis’s books are thin and airy. Written for children, Lewis utilizes sparse language, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the details. Adapting either presents challenges for a filmmaker, but in this case, Lewis’s creations, when applied to the screen, no longer make much sense. In the books, Narnia is a vague place. On screen it looks like New Zealand. Talking wolves and lions and foxes somehow works in a book, but even with impressive CGI special effects, seems hokey on film. The Chronicles of Narnia work because of the imagination Lewis forces his readers to use. Films, by their nature, lack this imaginative component; audiences don’t invent the images in their mind.
And the best example of the books’ ingenuity and the film’s failure is Aslan. On paper, the enormous talking lion works, a majestic, heroic, and scary presence. But on film, the conceit falls flat, almost comic in its awkwardness and na├»ve in its execution.
Worst of all, the film seems in love with its own image, in awe of itself. This peculiar trap of moviemaking narcissism revels in indulgent sentimentalism, where searching for epic sweep and emotional power results in cloying smiles and saccharine close-ups. The impressive battle scenes in the final act belong to another movie; the epic scale seems rushed. The best scene involves the White Witch lording it over an orgy of the damned, as if the desire to do evil truly is more fun than doing good.
The great sets and endless spectacle provide an atmospheric tone that is at times delicate. However hard the movie tries, however, it does not succeed. It’s good, but not quite good enough. Edmund and Peter, Susan and Lucy, the White Witch, Tomnas – they all already existed in the imaginations of millions of the living and the dead. I’m not sure I needed to see Aslan or the rest in a live action film. The splendor of movies just might be ruining any chance of real-life magic.

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