The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (review)

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The Power of Belief

So this is the one, after The Lord of the Rings, that, if you’re any kind of proper geek at all, you’ve been looking forward to with a mixture of glee and dread, counting the ways it could all go wrong and dreaming of the ways it could all go right. I mean, they gave it to the guy who made the Shrek flicks, and the Shreks are great but they’re goofy and Narnia isn’t, and then there were rumors that the allegory would be removed from the film, which is of course not only wrong but impractical: How do you remove the allegory, the unspoken symbolic stuff lurking behind a story, without completely changing the story beyond recognition?

The potential for disaster seemed immense.
So it is such a relief and a joy to report that it’s hard to imagine how much more right director Andrew Adamson and his four FX houses and his perfectly perfect cast could have gotten The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis’s classic fantasy — beloved by children of all ages, fantasy nerds round the world, and Christians who misunderstand that the allegorical stuff of Lewis’s book far predates Christianity — is here warm, sweet, funny, scary, magnificent, gorgeous, expansive, intimate, but mostly completely and utterly charming. And I mean Charming with a capital C, charming like the movie invented the concept and can’t get enough of frolicking with the idea and wants to sweep up the whole worlds — Narnia as well as our mundane plane — in its own enchantment. I’d hate to imagine anyone so hard of heart and cold of soul as to be untransported by this lovely, lovely film.

It’s in all the tiny details, the rock-solid reality of even the most impossible things in this magical land of Narnia that make you not just believe but feel its solidity and substance. Adamson found a little treasure in then eight-year-old Georgie Henley to play Lucy Pevensie, youngest of the four Pevensie siblings sent from London to the quiet English countryside during World War II to escape German bombing. The authenticity of Narnia is established from the very first moment Lucy, hiding from her brother in a wardrobe in the big old mansion to which they’ve been evacuated, mysteriously stumbles out the back of the closet and into this fantasy realm. The look on her face — of wonder, of delight, of awe — as she suddenly finds herself in a snowy wood is all the proof we need that Narnia exists. There is never a moment of disbelief that we, the audience, must overcome.

And she never stops, this bewitching Georgie kid, never stops believing, and so we never do either. Not when she meets the Faun Mr. Tumnus (played with a delicate desperation by James McAvoy: Rory O’Shea Was Here, Wimbledon), with his goat legs and big pointy ears and penchant for sardines and toast. Not when she meets friendly talking beavers or menacing talking wolves or messianic talking lions. And especially not when dealing with her older siblings: the four kids manifest an extraordinary relationship onscreen, one so credibly familial that it’s hard to believe they are not actually related. Any movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was always going to stand or fall on its child cast, the children being so central to the story, and individually, they couldn’t be better: William Moseley’s 16-year-old Peter bears the eldest-child responsibility with that combination of adultlike steadfastness and childlike smugness; Anna Popplewell’s (Girl with a Pearl Earring) Susan, 15 or so, balances well her inevitable substitution as a maternal figure with the impulse not to let girlhood go; and Skandar Keynes, as 12-year-old Edmund, has that middle-child petulance down pat. But as a now-squabbling, now-affectionate gaggle of siblings, they’re amazing.

Moreover, we never have any reason to doubt anything Lucy and the others see because with this film, it becomes clear that there is nothing that CGI cannot convincingly re-create. Every hair of Aslan’s mane looks touchably soft waving in the summer breezes of Narnia (the deity-worthy voice of Liam Neeson [Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven] lends the lion even more substantiality). In all the armies of creatures — the centaurs and the minotaurs and the cheetahs and the polar bears and the phoenixes and the cyclopses and on and on and on until you want to burst with rapture at the cleverness and imagination that went into this movie — you can’t tell which are real and which are guys in costumes and which are mere pixels. And inexpressibly graceful touches are woven into the CGI, too: Mr. Tumnus stamping snow off his hooves; Mr. Beaver running in his beaver-shaped chainmail shirt; even the tiny mice that nibble away at Aslan’s bonds after the ritual that–

Well. No point in spoiling the tale for those who haven’t read the book. Suffice to say that that ritual scene has its own charms, though they are dark and ominous ones. Tilda Swinton (Thumbsucker, Constantine), as the White Witch, Aslan’s — and Narnia’s — nemesis, presides over a ceremony that is as grim and as terrifying as anything The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter throw at their kiddie (and adult) audiences. It’s not just the fell critters, CGI or otherwise, who attend the rite: Swinton is horrifying, in a way the little kid in you wants to crawl under the blankets to get away from, and the sophisticated adult in you thrills to recognize such supreme talent. Swinton believes, too. We never, ever have reason to doubt her Witch’s evil, even among all the exquisiteness of Narnia, ensuring that the sweetness never overwhelms, yet only feels all the sweeter by contrast.

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