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Knights in armoire
Narnia hits the big screen

Ľ Related links

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

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends and colleagues at Oxford, so itís apt that The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the new film version of the first of Lewisís seven Narnia volumes, plays like The Lord of the Rings with training wheels. Andrew Adamson, director of the Shrek films, has hardly put the auteurist stamp on the material that Peter Jackson did with Tolkienís trilogy; in fact, the nicest thing one might say of Adamsonís adaptation is that he didnít screw it up. Thatís no small thing, and as a result, thereís no reason the film shouldnít delight a broad swath of children and grown-ups, including those who havenít read the books.

I hadnít read Lion in 30 years, and Iíd forgotten how slight the initial tale is. Four London children ó siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy ó are taking refuge from the Blitz in a musty English country house when they discover in an antique wardrobe a portal to another world, Narnia. There, thanks to Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), thereís been 100 years of winter but no Christmas. The childrenís arrival, however, heralds the return of spring and of Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), the talking lion who is Narniaís savior. What follows is a Judas-like betrayal, several examples of death and resurrection, and an apocalyptic battle that owes more to Jacksonís Ring cycle than to Lewis.

Much has been made of the Narnia seriesís Christian allegorical subtext, but itís no more obtrusive than that of, say, the Matrix trilogy ó itís obviously there, but you can also ignore it and enjoy the story as a rousing adventure tale. Just as prominent, at least in Adamsonís Narnia, is the allegorical take on totalitarianism. The director opens the picture with the real-life terror of a London air raid. It seems unlikely that there could be anything as scary in Narnia, but Adamson finds echoes in a Narnia battle scene in which giant birds flying in formation drop boulders on enemy forces below. (Both of these sequences expand on events that are only implied in the book.) Thereís also a frightening sacrificial ritual thatís part pagan blood rite and part Nuremberg rally. Jadis maintains power through fear, overseeing a secret police whose agents are everywhere and forcing citizens to inform on one another.

Whatís obvious and overdetermined here isnít the subtext but the characterizations. Black sheep Edmundís selfishness is blatant from the beginning, as is pragmatic Susanís literal-mindedness. The sole character who seems to have a rich inner life, thanks to the impossibly adorable Georgie Henley, is youngest child Lucy, whose mischievous smile and wide eyes suggest boundless playfulness and curiosity. If the characters have subtler traits and additional dimensions, the filmmakers seem to be saving such revelations for the sequels, as Lewis did.

Thatís not an altogether sloppy strategy. Most fantasy films (including the Shrek movies) seem to explain away all their quirks without leaving enough mystery to keep your imagination piqued and intrigued after the movie ends. But in Narnia there are enough strange creatures, ancient mysteries, and glittering vistas on the horizon to justify return visits to the wardrobe.

Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
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