With The Lord of the Rings movies now only available on DVD, fantasy enthusiasts were obviously wondering what next famous fantasy series would be coming to the screen. I was not surprised then to see the first (published) book of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe appear in movie theaters just in time for the holidays. It is a natural choice, not just because both books are convincing fantasy worlds, but also because C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were good friends. (Tolkien was the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Lewis and Tolkien met regularly and critiqued each other’s works. In addition, both were enamored with mythology.
As with The Lord of the Rings movies, fans of the Narnia books will feel some trepidation. Will their beloved Narnia be successfully rendered on film? Lord of the Rings fans got lucky. While a few purists were upset with Peter Jackson’s interpretation, most fans widely embraced The Lord of the Rings movies.
I cannot say whether this first Narnia movie was faithful to the book, since I never read it. As a teenager, my wife was an enthusiastic fan and read the books repeatedly. From her perspective, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a virtually perfect cinematic representation of the book. She left the theater absolutely gushing over the movie. Consequently, if you also were a devoted reader of the book, you probably will be satisfied too. Do not read further. Go see it!
The movie starts out well. It begins in the London Blitz during World War II. It convincingly captures the horror of that time. We watch the four Pevensie children (Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan) leave their distraught mother for the safety of a country estate owned by an odd professor. Peter, the oldest and barely into adolescence, has the unwelcome duty of being head of the family. Little is seen of the eccentric professor. However, the youngest of the family, Lucy, soon discovers the magic wardrobe in an unused room in the professor’s estate. As you probably know, it mysteriously transports her to this other world called Narnia, which is stuck in what seems to be an eternal winter. She makes friends with Mr. Tumnus, a friendly creature that appears to be half-human and half goat. Of course, he is but one of many magical creatures they will meet. Lucy returns to the wardrobe. Gradually the other children discover she is not making up Narnia. Eventually they all are in Narnia together.
Narnia is ruled by the wicked White Witch, who is convincingly played by Tilda Swinton. She aims to keep its creatures oppressed and Narnia in perpetual winter. One of the boys, Edmund, falls under her icy charm. Meanwhile there are rumors that the White Witch’s enemy, a lion called Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) is returning to Narnia. He of course wants Narnia to be free of the White Witch’s influence. If he succeeds, winter will recede, the creatures will be free and Narnia will bloom again.
As with The Lord of the Rings movies, it becomes another good vs. evil story. The good news is that the movie is very well done. The four children are quite convincing. Narnia is believable. There is no off note among the entire cast. In addition, the special effects blend in seamlessly with the live action. One has to scratch pretty deeply to find some things about which to complain.
Nonetheless, I found some things that made it less than perfect for me. While C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian, the parallel between Aslan and Jesus was pretty hard to miss and for me gave the film a condescending tone. The White Witch plays the role of Satan. Aslan is rendered digitally and is amazingly lifelike. I must confess though that I was far more enamored with the White Witch than with Aslan. She may be something of an ice queen, but she got my temperature rising.
You will not be surprised then to find out that Jesus’s death and resurrection have a parallel reality in Narnia. Just as Jesus goes to a sacrificial death for a greater cause, so the Lion allows himself to be sacrificed. (His death is graphically depicted. Parents beware. It is more of a PG-13 movie than a PG movie.) Even the book of Revelations is modeled, with the movie ending in a culminating battle between good and evil. You will not have to guess too hard to figure out which side is going to win.
Naturally, the arrival of the humans was foretold, and the prophecy was that the eldest would be a future King of Narnia, after he proved himself in battle. Here is another instance where the otherwise excellently rendered world of Narnia fell apart for me. Am I supposed to believe that everyone in Narnia is going to let Peter, barely an adolescent and who probably never even led a Cub Scout pack, lead them into an ultimate stakes battle against the White Witch and her vastly superior forces? Okay, sure. Why not? This is after all a fantasy. However, it did not work for me. His character did not seem to have sufficiently matured to take on such responsibilities.
Moreover, although the movie is quite long for a movie these days (two hours and twenty minutes) it is not long enough to make me fully suspend disbelief. This is because the screenwriter and director had to make some choices and left out some things. Perhaps they left out things like why the good citizens of Narnia would follow Peter into battle. They seem more like compliant sheep. If, like my wife, you have read the books then your mind can fill in the gaps. However, if you have not read the books then these issues loom larger, become distracting and ultimately make the movie a bit less plausible than it could be.
Nonetheless, this is still an excellent fantasy movie in a league that few can touch. My little nits notwithstanding you will likely find it quite well done and engaging too. It is about as good a movie about Narnia as you can possibly expect in two hours and twenty minutes. 3.4 on my 4 point scale.