The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
by Dianne Lawrence
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Along with Alice in Wonderland and My Secret Garden, the Narnia stories were easily my favorite children’s books. I went to see this film with some concern about how it would hold up to the blockbuster Ring Trilogies, the exceptional last two Potter films or the special magic that the Narnia name still conjured up for me. It’s become a challenge to keep the world of elves, witches and magical beings from becoming McMagic and an excuse for showing off special effects skills. No worries here. The director, Andrew Adamson, (who supervised the special effects of two of the Batman films and directed the Shrek films) has done a superb job of pulling us into the realistic dilemmas and magical realities of childhood circumstance.
As the film opens we are thrust into the real life evil of German warplanes dropping bombs on London. Our four protagonists, Lucy the youngest, Edmund the naughtiest, Peter the oldest and most responsible and Susan the reasonable one, are gathered up by their mother and hurled into the backyard shelter as the bombs shake the windows from their house.
The most troubled of the four, Edmund, (Skandar Keynes) the one most easily led to unfortunate choices, risks his and his brothers life when he runs back into the house to retrieve a picture of his father, a soldier. It’s a small but clear expression of the need for his dad and a possible explanation for his petulance and bad temper. His willfulness will betray his brother and sisters in ways that his innocent greed can’t comprehend and yet we are offered a small moment of explanation for his behavior.
In World War II families in London sent their children off to foster homes in the countryside for safekeeping. The director doesn’t rush us into the fantasyworld but takes his time, setting the children on a real life adventure as they leave their mother and the danger of the city, board a train and head towards a stranger’s house in unknown territory. Fortunately they land in a huge mansion with a stern but decent housekeeper and an owner who “must not be disturbed.” It’s during a dreary rainy day and a game of hide and seek that the youngest, Lucy, played by Georgie Henley with incredible charm and subtlety (where do these young kids learn these skills?) discovers the Wardrobe. Shoving herself into the back of it, she suddenly finds herself in a snow forest and is soon talking to Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a faun coming home from a day of shopping. He persuades her to join him for tea. The picture of a small child following a half naked goat man home provides for an uncomfortable moment that may not have been intended in the original story and provides for some awkward feelings in the audience. As it turns out it’s the law of the land that all humans are to be delivered to the White Witch and the fauns evil intentions are revealed. Hopefully a warning to the little girls in the audience. It’s in her interaction with the faun that we see Lucy as a symbol of utter innocence and pure goodwill and try as he might Mr. Tumnus can’t bring himself to deliver all that goodness to evil and helps her back to the closet and becomes a friend forever. I personally enjoy the fact that Lewis’s ties to his Christian thinking didn’t prevent him from being flexible enough to make a horned and hoofed being, a decent fellow. The job of delivering up the kids to the Witch is left to sullen Edmund who is always angry at his exasperated older brother Peter. After the children have dismissed Lucy’s story of fauns and wintery forests he is the next to find his way into the closet, the forest and the lap of the White Witch.
Played with physically tangible dark evil and the authority of a very experienced dominatrix, Tilda Swinton is the ironically named White Witch. Watching the thoughts and emotions play across her face as she uses candy and Edmunds hungry ego to seduce the greedy boy into delivering up his siblings, is almost reason enough to see the film. She is nothing short of Fabulous. That she can pull off riding a chariot pulled by polar bears, into battle with utter focus and authority, earns her skills continued deep respect. The White Witch has kept the land in winter for 100 years but all dark things must come to an end (sorry Bush) and the prophesy of children being the conduit for her demise is what fuels her temper. Of course the older kids Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) are soon to follow into the magical kingdom. The children are found by two perfectly articulated CGI-generated beavers, a Mr.& Mrs who banter like loving old couple and who explain to the children their destined purpose of saving Narnia. The Beavers understand their part and guide the children through fierce wolves and danger to Aslan (voice by Liam Neeson) .the long awaited Lion King who doubles as a stand in for Christ. The story starts to rush along at this point to the inevitable sacrifice with its sensationally disturbing Heironymus Bosch revelry, the battle with evil and the children finding their heart, their brains and their courage (hmm where have we seen that before).
Much has been made about Lewis’s Christian sentiments and the director did not shy away from attracting the Mel Gibson crowd with liberal Christian imagery. In fact this is where the movie might have overplayed its hand especially in the sacrifice scene when Lucy and Susan untie a sacrificed Aslan and lay weeping over his body. We are left with the heavy-handed imagery but unless you are a devout, not much feeling. But despite the lean in this direction I would argue that the Christians don’t really have total dibs on this imagery. The Sacrificed God predates Christianity and one can visit the much older Hindu, Bhagavad Gita, for spiritual stories about Divine intervention and guidance in the battle with evil played out on the great plains of life. Like many spiritual myths the more esoteric meanings that underly the stories are universal. The recent surge of magic in the theater fulfills our need to come back to the innocent concern of how best to survive in a world that is constantly coming to grips with the never ending grasp of perpetual evil. And how better to survive than to be challenged to turn to the best in us and to pray for magical intervention.
Dianne Lawrence is an artist and film critic in Los Angeles.
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