Hippo Manchester
December 15, 2005

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Film: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (PG)  B+

by Amy Diaz

C.S. Lewis lays the smackdown to J.K. Rowling in the authors-with-initials-as-first-names showdown at the box office, thanks to Lewis’ smash hit The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I see your Muggles and I raise you fauns, Lewis says to Rowling, or would if he hasn’t been dead some 40 years.

But it’s not a fair fight, Rowling might say back (if she weren’t too busy rolling around in big piles of money), I only had one loveable English scamp and you have four accented, somewhat-bad-teeth-having moppets. Ah, well, Ms. Rowling, them’s the breaks in children’s sci-fi/fantasy genre fiction.

And, yes, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) are very moppety, so much so that you barely even notice their overbites. They’re terribly British too — stiff-upper-lip-ish even as they wave bye to their mum. She sends them off to the country to better weather the Blitz on London. And, after an initial bout of quiet British sniffles, the children begin to accept their new surroundings. Their temporary home, after all, is a big rambling mansion owned by the generally absent Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent). After homesickness and word games no longer pass the time, the children decide to play hide-and-seek. Little Lucy hides in a giant wardrobe and, backing up through the folds of wool and fur coats she stumbles into a snowbank in the middle of an evergreen-filled forest. Delighted by the snow and the whole forest-inside-the-wardrobe thing, she wanders around a bit and meets Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a nervous but friendly faun (a two-legged, torso-of-a-man, hindquarters-of-a-deer thing). After a polite spot of tea (during which Lucy learns that she is in Narnia and Narnia is in winter and the winter is caused by the reign of an extremely bitchy witch), Lucy returns to tell her brothers and sister about her adventures. Naturally, since she is very young and they are older and she’s talking a lot of nonsense about fauns and witches, they don’t believe her.

Edmund, in the Richard III tradition of middle children, even follows Lucy to Narnia later and yet continues to pretend he doesn’t believe the whole wardrobe-as-wormhole-to-magical-land theory. Edmund isn’t just a liar, of course, he’s also something of a traitor. On this initial trip to Narnia, he bumps into a woman calling herself the Queen of Narnia (Tilda Swinton, who as we later find out is the White Witch) who offers him Turkish delight and gets him to fink on Mr. Tumnus, who was supposed to call the authorities if he ever saw a human. (By the way, I strongly urge you to check out the article on Turkish delight at www.slate.com. If you have ever had this borderline old perfume-flavored candy that is roughly the consistency of glue-gun glue, you too will make a “yick” face when White Witch offers Edmund a box.)

Eventually, though, all of the Pevensie children wind up in Narnia and quickly they discover what mischief Edmund has caused. The Witch is now after the children and any of the talking animals that help them.

But hark, the herald beavers sing, Aslan is on the move. Conjured up by CGI and voiced by Liam Neeson, Alsan is a wise and brave lion who is mounting an army that, with the help of the children, will fight the witch and free the land of Narnia from her wicked, icy rule.

Or, you know, maybe not, because Tilda Swinton is a pretty bad-ass witch.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe starts off with the terrors of war, the terrors of being a small child far from home and then the thrill of adventure in a new location. By the time we get to Narnia, the movie is crackling along nicely with slightly precious but essentially earned excitement and enchantment at this magical land given a bit of an edge by the scariness of the outside world.

Like a group of kids packed into a toboggan, the Pevensies react with kid-like approximations of glee and fear as their journey in Narnia careens faster and faster down the rollicking-good-time snowy bank of the story. They shriek with joy, they shout with surprise, they laugh.

And then, thud, the sled full of revelers runs smack into the Christian allegory.

I want to make it clear that I don’t mind that there’s a Christian allegory; I only mind how it’s presented. Wardrobe is not a JRR Tolkien story. We have a big cast of talking animals and magical whatevers but we do not have a deep, dense tangle of plots and subplots and prophecies (Narnia seems to have exactly one prophecy). Where in Tolkien a bit of paring down in the backstory and motivation might have been helpful, here a motivation as simple as “do it for the Jesus-lion” seems shockingly direct for a story this thin. With his holy voice and his holier-than-thou manner, Aslan is a big killjoy. He teaches Edmund it’s wrong to be a jerk and demonstrates the consequences of jerkiness with enough drama to make a Catholic mother proud. (There’s no guilt like crucifixion guilt!)

Once the lion goes-to-that-big-zoo-in-the-sky for our sins, the movie picks up enough to have a battle but then moralizing overtakes fun again and what started out as a snowy adventure just ends as a soggy mess.

Hey, every writer steals from somewhere — at least Rowling had the good sense not to steal from the parts of the canon that cause your action to drag.