“It’s not like he’s a tame lion.” It’s a single line, delivered in the final moments of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, long after the climax is complete. Nevertheless, for myself and, I imagine, legions of Narnia enthusiasts like me, its inclusion thrills the soul, sells the film, and puts to rest any nagging concerns that, well, they just wouldn’t get it right. Why? Because C.S. Lewis’ fictional world of Narnia is not just an alternate universe where animals talk, where fauns and dryads and nymphs are real, where children can be heroes and adults are hard to find. It’s much more important than that, and rarely has anyone come away touched by those elements alone. It’s a world where children encounter the wild, untamable, unpredictable power of the divine.
Adapted by director Andrew Adamson from the eponymous first volume of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is a live-action presentation of Lewis’ popular tale of the wild world of Narnia and that very encounter of children with divine love and power. Filmed in New Zealand but heavily dependent on the special effects lab, the film stars Tilda Swinson as the White Witch, Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan, and four relative unknowns as the famous Pevensies, British children whose country exile from the London Blitz leads them to discover Narnia: William Moseley as Peter, Anna Popplewell as Susan, Skandar Kaynes as Edmund, and Georgie Henley as Lucy. Rated PG, the film has been explicitly marketed as a children’s tale, but adults will find much to enjoy as well, even if reading the Narnia books was not a memorable part of their own childhood.
Though Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham (who gets a co-producer credit on the film), claims that the Narnia books are not Christian novels, a great many readers over several generations have interpreted them on second sight as allegorical tales of salvation history: Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and Apocalypse. None of these fans will be disappointed with the film, for The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe retains all the money quotes and plot points of the novel that convey exactly those themes. The more hectoring of Christian commentators have warned darkly over the past months that Disney could not be trusted with faith-based material, but it’s all here this time: references to the “Deep Magic” of sacrifice and atonement that underpins the universe, explicit parallels between Aslan and Christ (and the White Witch and Satan), and even a dramatic morning resurrection attested to, in a clever take on Scripture, by the girls alone. There’s much more here than the thin soup of Joseph Campbell which passes for spirituality in most Hollywood epics, and you’ll know it when you hear the resurrected Aslan roar.
Lewis himself was famously opposed to film versions of the Narnia novels, fearing that any attempt to portray talking animals in a live-action film would result in “buffoonery or nightmare.” I suspect his conviction would be altered if he could have anticipated the spectacular advances in computerized special effects of the last decade. How far CGI has come can be seen most clearly in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, whose complicated facial expressions and realistic locomotion make them much more than buffoons, but anthropomorphic creatures of a quality rarely seen on film. Transformed from a genteel dignity in the original novel, these two are remarkably well-rounded characters: they engage in marital squabbles in thick cockney accents, treat their human guests less as overlords than as equals, and are not above challenging a wolf or two to a scrappy fight.
As is often the case in films that mix CGI characters with people, the digital phantasms of Narnia overshadow their live counterparts, particularly in dialogue. Let’s be honest here–a talking lion is just a whole lot more interesting than a child who won’t stop talking. Nevertheless, the Pevensie children in the film are likeable while remaining pleasingly free of any saccharine gloss: they argue, sulk, cry, complain, and, more ominously, are capable of astounding anger and betrayal. Lewis possessed a special touch for portraying the worldview of children in unfamiliar circumstances, and to their credit, the screenwriters retained much of Lewis’ dialogue verbatim. Though accepting their rapid transformation from grumpy school kids to epic heroes may require a certain suspension of disbelief, it isn’t hard to come by: Narnia’s central character is, after, all, a talking lion.
Quibbles on Bits
Narnia purists will find plenty with which to take issue, of course, though the altered details are generally not germane to the plot. The head wolf is named “Maugrim” (as in the British novels) instead of the eminently more Norse “Fenris Ulf” found in the original American versions. The White Witch is no longer “not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing sugar, except for her very red mouth,” but is instead simply a faded monochrome, her only vivid color a pair of ochre marks flanking her nose, as if her bifocals might be a bit too tight. Gone too is her golden crown, replaced by a panoply of icicles more befitting Mr. Freeze.
More problematic is the occasional concession to the visual tropes of the Hollywood-blockbuster. For anyone who has not seen Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven, or countless other variations on the same theme, the sweeping shots of battle-lines working themselves into a frenzy and charging the enemy might be a thrilling turn; for the vast majority of viewers (even children), these scenes will come off as hackneyed and derivative cliches. Similarly, several action scenes are made up out of whole cloth and inserted at regular intervals, significantly altering the plot to allow the Narnian equivalents of a car chase. This is the kind of material culled for movie trailers, but is neither necessary to the success of the film nor in keeping with its overall tone.
These minor quibbles aside, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe achieves dramatic success both as a fantasy film on its own and as a largely faithful adaptation of Lewis’ beloved chronicles. The latter fact will please the Narnia and Lewis enthusiasts among us, and the former will please the executives at Disney, because make no mistake about it: this film is going to make a fortune.