The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
2005Director: Andrew Adamson
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes
few movies (not many) are great. They inspire us and, at the risk of sounding overly precious, redeem our belief in the medium of film. Other movies (significantly more, I’m sad to report) are awful, made with enough visible laziness and inattention to craft to make your eyes bleed. Most movies, however, exist in the vast continuum between those two extremes, and are most deserving of the word “functional.” It’s not an exciting word, and never do “functional” movies generate the kind of magic that great or even flawed-but-visionary films are capable of putting up on the screen. But nor do they depress you and make you wish fervently for a just God who could restore the ten bucks and two-plus hours you just wasted in the theater. No, these kinds of movies merely sit up on the screen and ask for your attention and (partial) emotional engagement, hoping only to fatten the wallets of a few Hollywood executives and return you to your home mildly entertained. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that, really, but it’s not exactly worth hosannas of praise, either.
Such is the case with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (this will be the only time in this review in which I will quote the entire title. Promise). Andrew Adamson’s competent but unexceptional big-screen treatment of the C.S. Lewis classic is something of a disappointment, at least by the standards of the Peter Jacksons of the world. But there is only one Peter Jackson, and a lot more Michael Bays, so the well-crafted, occasionally rousing Narnia, which does nothing to offend and a great deal to entertain, deserves the benefit of the doubt.
For anyone familiar with the Lewis mythology, it should come as a relief to learn that Adamson (Shrek) makes the wise decision to follow the story as literally as possible. The Pevensie children (Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan), after nearly being killed by German bombs, are sent by their worried parents from London to the English countryside during the Nazi aerial blitz. The house, a classic Mysterious Manor if ever there was one, turns out to contain a wardrobe that acts as a portal to the magical world of Narnia, currently dominated by the evil White Witch (a scenery-chewing Tilda Swinton), who imposes both a never-ending winter and a rather easily irritated personality on the helpless denizens. But there’s a Prophecy, as there always is with these things, and the Pevensie children must fulfill it, along with the Christ-like lion, Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson), to free the land and raise the temperature.
Much ink has been spilled about the Christian parable Lewis intended the Narnia stories to be, and given the filmmaker’s assiduous attention to the original text, it’s only natural that Narnia features some rather explicit Biblical themes and references. But this movie (as the book did) wisely prizes story over message, so that Christians who see the film will recognize and appreciate the thematic weight implied by the story (which is, after all, a thinly disguised tale of the death and resurrection of Jesus), while those who don’t share Lewis’ faith will not feel alienated or ignored. Think Ben-Hur , as opposed to the The Passion of the Christ.
Meanwhile, we’ve got the usual assortment of sword fights, chase scenes, and the obligatory final battle sequence, where Good confronts Evil and smacks it down resoundingly. It’s in these scenes that the ambiguous influence of The Lord of the Rings asserts itself. A decidedly more middle-of-the-road fantasy like Narnia inevitably suffers by comparison to the exquisitely gloomy grandeur of Jackson’s Middle Earth. On the other hand, without the financial windfall the Tolkien trilogy netted New Line, it’s doubtful a movie like this would have been made at all. Regardless, Narnia succeeds as a rousing epic, lacking only a certain magnitude of vision that might have nudged it toward greatness.
A final verdict on this kind of movie is, as noted, destined to be an ambivalent one. Narnia probably functions best as a fun and relatively innocuous family adventure film, if the kiddies can handle some slashing swords and occasional detours into thematic darkness. For everyone else, the movie is eminently missable, but not the worst way to spend a couple of afternoon hours. Especially if you’ve already seen Munich and Syriana, and need some cinematic glitter to go with your substance.