Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Tilda Swinton
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Scary Sequences and Ye Olde Swordplay

The opening picture in what could become another Harry Potter-esque series is the stuff of bedtime stories: innocent children, a mystical land, a wicked witch, talking animals and a friendly lion who's anything but cowardly. You have likely heard much about Wardrobe's religious symmetry, but Disney has not made The Lion King Of Kings.

For those unfamiliar with C.S. Lewis' classic novel, four children are evacuated to the country in WWII England to escape bombing in London: the inquisitive and adventurous young Lucie (Henley), the belittled Edmund (Keynes), his big brother Peter (Moseley) and practical big sister Susan (Popplewell). They wind up in the mansion of reclusive Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent), a man not used to children or even walking about his sprawling estate, it seems.

The children, bored silly, turn to amusing themselves with a game of hide-and-seek, which leads Lucy to hide in a musty, dusty wardrobe in a spare room. But this wardrobe turns out to be the ultimate walk-in closet: a portal into a the world of Narnia, a land in perpetual winter ruled by the evil White Witch (icily and slickly played by Tilda Swinton). Lucy eventually leads the others into the new world, where they learn about a prophecy: they -- four humans -- are destined to defeat the witch and bring peace to the land, if she doesn't kill them first... with the unknowing help of Edmund. He betrays the others, albeit unknowingly, with the witch's promise of power and a few tasty Turkish Delights.

As for the good guys, you have a couple of beavers, a sly fox, an army of half-human, half-beasts and the aformentioned lion, Aslan. He's so warm and furry and friendly, it's hard to believe he can lead an army, much less save his people. Here's where we get to the religious symbolism. I'm not giving anything away by saying Aslan agrees to give his life in place of Edmund's to satisfy a murky law of the land concerning the execution of traitors -- at least it's murky as applied to Edmund. So Aslan is executed by the witch, although the scene surely doesn't have half the power of The Last Temptation Of Christ. You can probably figure out what happens next -- Aslan returns to life the next day, ready to do battle.

But as the film explains it, Aslan's return isn't about messianic power, but rather a knowledge of "deep magic" and some cunning. Watch the film with this in mind, or go back and read it in Lewis' book and think about it. Yes, you can certainly draw parallels, but those wanting a pure Aslan-as-Jesus comparison will be disappointed.

C.S. Lewis strongly objected to a movie of his novel because he thought filmmakers wouldn't be able to pull off all the talking animals without resorting to silly puppetronics. He died in 1963, years before anybody had an inkling of what was to come in CGI. The animals in Wardrobe talk and act with a CGI fluidity that is about as natural as you can get for fantasy beasts. No doubt the digital artists spent painstaking hours studying the movements of creatures to synthesize human and animal instincts.

Like C.S. Lewis' classic novel, Wardrobe is tightly paced. Little needs to go on the cutting room floor, and little does, leaving a film clocking in at a comfortable two hours. If box office results are strong, we could see the six other Narnia books filmed.

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