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film review ***1/2: Through the Wardrobe ... Paradise Regained

The Chronicles Begin With Breathtaking Creatures and Lands in ...Narnia...

By Rosa Cao

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion,
The Witch, and the Wardrobe

Directed by Adam Adamson

Written by Ann Peacock

Based on the novel by C. S. Lewis

Starring Liam Neeson, Tilda Swinton, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell

Rated PG

Opens Today

It’s World War II, and the bombs are falling on London. Wrong movie? But no, here is a mother with four children, huddled in a bomb shelter. Next we see them at the train station, about to be evacuated with thousands of other children to the green English countryside with labels around their necks — Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie, each looking more or less miserable, the older ones trying hard to behave grown-up for the war.

Do you remember Narnia? C.S. Lewis wrote a story about the triumph of good over evil (and yes, the Second Coming and the importance of faith), and the loyalty of four brothers and sisters to each other and their friends, many of whom turn out to be talking animals or mythic beasts. The familiarity is delicious, and somehow, “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” avoids cheesiness. Or rather, the cynicism required to judge something “cheesy” just gets swept away with all the rest of the clutter in your head as Lucy makes her first passage through the back of an old wardrobe to a new world. Your heart beats faster as coats give way to more coats and yet more, and then ... branches? Snow??

Welcome to Narnia: here it is, with snow-covered pines and a lone flickering lamppost in a clearing. There in the distance, a faint chiming of sleigh bells, but is it Father Christmas with his reindeer or the White Witch with her pack of wolves? But wait, around a tree comes Mr. Tumnus the faun, with his umbrella, scarf, and too many packages, though Christmas hasn’t come to Narnia in a hundred years.

It may be sprinkled with warm cozy chats here and there, but this movie is never boring. Whether a frolic, a chase, or a frantic flight through Narnia’s many landscapes, what we see is the magic of life and death. One of the best visuals shows the queen’s magic dropper, with its yields of steaming hot chocolate and Turkish delight. Another visual highlight is the stone sculpture garden of fallen heroes, frozen in the moment of defeat.

The 140-minute movie is satisfyingly faithful to Lewis’ book. Perhaps it helps that the original was fewer than 200 short pages; unlike for “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings,” no heroic feats of distillation were necessary here. If it has a flaw, it’s that this movie isn’t capable of expressing the unattainable the way the book could. It can’t quite show what is so special about Aslan; we have to accept it as a given.

It’s a pity the creators tried to give human expressions to the animals; it’s jarring to see human smiles and shrugs on faces not meant for them. The voice actors were great; that expressiveness might have sufficed.

Disney had regal splendor down to an art with “The Lion King.” Perhaps they need to work a little harder with the CG, because poor Aslan pales in comparison. Where is the “soft roughness of golden fur?” Where are the “great sad eyes” Lewis describes? Contact with Aslan is supposed to be, well, a religious experience, from the rich smell of his life-giving breath to “the beautiful sea of fur.” If anything, this Aslan is a little too real, too normal, even — dare I say it — a little frizzy, (although there is a permanent shampoo commercial breeze about him).

In contrast, Tilda Swinton is absolutely stunning as the White Witch; power radiates from her slender form. She is evil without being either vile or stupid; no, she is calmly, rationally, beautifully evil. She looks devastatingly real, with utterly black pupils in the palest of faces. In battle, she is magnificent, her silky fur stole as tawny as Aslan should have been, her flashing staff dealing deadly icy bolts.

Her quiet menace permeates a dungeon scene: “Do you know why you are here?” she asks the quivering Mr. Tumnus in his frozen cell. She cuts off his terrified stammers with an impatient wave. And then, kindly, pedagogically: “You are here, because he turned you in ...” She looks at Edmund, a delicate pause. And then, with contemptuous finality: “... for sweeties.” (Oh, Turkish delight!) But I can’t do the delivery justice. You’ll have to go see it.

For those who worry about such things as ideology and indoctrination, the movie is as subtle (or not) as the book with respect to the Christian underpinnings of the story. You’ll find it all there if you look for it, from Calvary to the Resurrection, to the faith-based arguments about why we should believe the “impossible” rather than trust our common sense. But why look for it? The fantasy easily stands alone.

Narnia is a wonderful escape within an escape; like the old professor who owns the wardrobe (whose own secret history should be revealed some movies on), I can’t wait to go back.