home | art & architecture | books & cds | dance | destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
Directed by Andrew
Adamson, The Chronicles of Narnia is Walt Disney Pictures big-budget
holiday-release version of the classic childrens tale by C.S. Lewis.
Subtitled The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, this is the first in Lewis
seven-volume, allusion-rich, and quirkily allegorical exploration of Christian theology.
At the onset of the London Blitz (the Nazi German bombing of London during World War II),
four English children are evacuated to the country, into the care of an eccentric old
professor and his rambling country estate. Soon, the children stumble upon a wardrobe
tucked away in an unused room of the estate. In the fashion of Alice in Wonderland, the clothes closet
is in fact the portal to another world. Once they cross the threshold, they tumble into a
magical world in the grips of an endless winter.
Lewis set this fable in a pivotal time in history, when the western Allies were fighting the last good war against the Nazis, their Axis allies, and the evil messianism of Adolf Hitler. Spirited away from the dangers of war-time London, Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keenness), older brother Peter (William Moseley), older sister Susan (Anna Popplewell), and, the youngest, sister Lucy (Georgie Henley), form a new family unit, and, catapulted into Narnia, begin working out their differences as they hit the ground running. Jadis the bad-tempered, cold-hearted evil White Queen (Tilda Swinton), holds all of Narnia in her frozen, life-denying grip. Not unlike Dorothy arriving in the Land of Oz, the sudden, but oddly expected arrival of the Pevensies triggers a call to war. And the lion king messiah Aslan (voice by Liam Neeson) returns to lead the way.
The typical "core family values" theme of the Disney universe mixes its brand of allegedly Christian family values with popular English sentiment here. The Chronicles of Narnia wraps its messages up in lush pageantry of Anglican and pagan symbolism. (C. S. Lewis converted to Christianity after a long talk with J. R. R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), a devout Catholic whom he befriended when they were both at Oxford.) For example, the notion of a loving family as the best defense against a hostile and dangerous world is driven home both in words and images. Repeatedly the cinematography frames the elder siblings Peter and Susan as ersatz parents protecting and instructing their younger siblings, and ersatz children, Lucy and Edmund.
The film brings to life the rich cast of Lewis mythical and allegorical characters in vivid detail, setting them against breathtaking landscapes. Live actors mix with computer-generated special effects. though to sometimes mixed effect. Narnia is essentially a different fantasy world from Harry Potters school for wizards or Tolkiens Middle Earth. In Narnia the mythologies and metaphorical languages of classical Greece, pagan Rome, and medieval Christianity commingle. For example, the traditional Christ as the Lamb of God (innocent victim led to the slaughter) is rendered as a wise and kind-hearted lion warrior, who willingly sacrifices himself on a pagan alter of stone. Evil does not dwell amid a Miltonian pandemonium of fire and brimstone, but in a colorless, heartless, place of eternal white winter. In the epic battle scene, mythological creatures square off pagan fawns and satyrs and centaurs, griffins and phoenixes, talking beavers and minotaurs conjure Disney worlds like Fantasia and Snow White rather than Armageddon. And Jadis leads her polar bear-drawn chariot, Boadicea-regal.
As with the Harry Potter films from novels, The Chronicles of Narnia makes numerous assumptions in the translation from book to screen, leaving gaps which a reading of the original book would clear up. Disneys lavish production now counts as at least the fourth film treatment of the Lewis tale, and prompts an easy and favorable comparison to the 1988 British television production. Tilda Swintons performance is singularly striking, and not just as only one of two allegorical figures played by a human actor. The other is James McAvoy, who with a cgi lower torso, plays the innocent, child-like fawn Mr. Tumnus. For the most part, the story is intended as childrens fare. As fantasy it enchants. As action-adventure story it thrills. For the Christian believer or scholar, there is plenty of subtext and symbolism to pour over, but gleaning religious lessons appears to be optional. Aware of the bar set by the legacy of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Ring series, The Chronicles of Narnia may well prove a lasting film treatment for the ages.
- Les Wright