Monday, December 12, 2005

"Chronicles of Narnia" now accepting viewers - smartasses need not apply


directed by Andrew Adamson
starring four young tykes, Tilda Swinton, and what amounts to a cameo by Jim Broadbent
based on the book by C.S. Lewis

Ok, first and foremost: Narnia is *not* the new “Lord of the Rings.” (Nor is it the next Harry Potter—if for no other reason than that C.S. Lewis had about fifty years jump on J.K. Rowling.)

That’s not to say it doesn’t share certain common elements with Tolkien’s trilogy. Like “LOTR,” it’s a fantasy culminating in an archetypal battle between good and evil, conceived by a tweedy British literary scholar at a time when the armies of darkness seemed in a fair way to conquer the real world. But there the resemblance ends.

Tolkien’s universe is a study in darkening shadows, deepening fear, and a kind of stoic hopelessness that finds a small measure of solace and meaning in courage, will, and loyal comradeship. (It’s very much the sensibility that permeates “Beowulf,” which Tolkien translated.) There is no overarching faith, no higher order that protects the struggling and suffering heroes. By contrast, Narnia is painted in clean, bright colors and suffused with a sense of divinely benevolent purpose; it is, after all, a land made to be ruled by children. But it doesn’t have the snap or down-to-earth wit of those cheeky Hogwarts kids, any more than it has the epic sweep of Middle-earth heroism. What it does have are moments of great spiritual beauty—and no, you don’t have to be a Christian to feel their power.

Unfortunately, spiritual beauty is a tricky thing to translate into a studio film, and doesn’t quite make it into this one. And for all the hoopla about Disney supposedly marketing the movie for Christian audiences, this is not an overtly religious film. While there’s no denying that “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is a classic Christ allegory, complete with Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, it’s as much pure adventure as it is New Testament narrative. It’s everyone’s childhood fantasy of escaping to another, much cooler world where magic is real and tangible, and even the most ordinary boy or girl can do great things. And that’s how it’s filmed, from the moment little Lucy Pevensie (saucer-eyed Georgie Henley) sets foot in the mysterious wardrobe-portal to the coronation of all four Pevensie children in the castle of Cair Paravel.

In fact, the screenwriters have added their own, subtly secularized spin to LWW by turning it into a tale of a broken family. At the story’s outset, the children are sent to the countryside to escape the London air raids of World War II—a fact imparted in passing in the book, but much more dwelt upon in the movie. We learn that the father is away fighting in the war, and that his absence has strained relations among the children—particularly between Peter (William Moseley), the eldest, and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the second youngest. To establish this point, the film opens with a horribly fake air raid and scramble to the family bomb shelter, and cuts to the children’s sendoff (storylines handled with infinitely more grace and delicacy, by the way, in John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory”). Thereafter, Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings tracks back to the loss of his father and his resentment towards Peter for attempting to fill the paternal role.

Thematically, that’s not a bad way to go, even if it relies too much on facile psychologizing. It makes Edmund’s redemption less about divine grace than the healing of familial rifts and affirming of familial love—though in some sense it’s also about finding the ultimate father figure, in the form of the Great Lion Aslan (aka God, as voiced by Liam Neeson). Family dynamics thus take front and center stage in the film, with mixed results. The actors—all unknowns—really do look like a family, but some of their bickering feels rather obviously scripted and stiffly played. Still, when Edmund finally comes through for his kin, it’s still rousing enough to bring a tear to this old softy’s eye. Unquestionably, LWW requires you to check your skepticism and wisecracks at the door, and become like a little child again. (Which is as much to say, if you can’t shake the impression of Mr. Tumnus as a child-molester, the movie is lost to you.) I couldn’t do it at first, but eventually something clicked into place. It helps to watch the film with young children, I think.

Apart from beefing up the WWII backdrop, the writers remain faithful to the book, though they throw in a few extra dollops of action and suspense that aren’t quite enough to stave off a sagging feeling about midway through. The production values are high, thanks to a monster budget, and the resulting film looks very polished and pristine—perhaps a bit too much so. There isn’t enough *dirt*, and no blood. The computer animation, no doubt state-of-the-art, still looks unmistakably like computer animation—or maybe it’s just my entrenched unwillingness to suspend disbelief in “real” animals moving their lips to speak. That said, there are some nice touches—figures dancing in a fire to represent stories being told, trees that assume fleeting shapes of dryads, the ice palace of the White Witch—that make this Narnia more than just pretty shots of New Zealand overlaid with CGI.

But what really saves the movie from pleasant innocuousness is the great Tilda Swinton as Narnian Public Enemy #1, the White Witch. Not only does Swinton look the part, with her ivory pallor and eyes and cheekbones that could cut glass; she projects exactly the right combination of imperiousness and seductiveness, shifting like quicksilver from serene to terrifying without so much as a break in her liquid voice. You can believe both that she’s evil and that she could convince a skeptical child to accept sweets and promises. Within the beautiful but morally polarized world of Narnia, that’s about as close to complexity as you’re likely to get.

RATING: ** 1/2


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had noticed your blog when I was reading some article on Sepia-Mutiny .
This Critique has convinced me to at least go and have a look at the movie.
I am a huge LOTR fan(Nay, not the movies but the book) and I never got around reading any of Lewis' works ,although I remember Star movies had aired a BBC teleserial on the same ...long long ago but it never caught my fancy then.
A few days ago I had read a review about the movie on Sepia and somehow my interest (abt the Movie)had waned but after I read your review I think I might just go and have a look anyway!

Blog On.


8:09 AM  

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