Once upon a time, before Harry Potter, there was another wildly popular series of childrens novels that captured the hearts and imaginations of several generations: C.S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia. In the much-anticipated first film adaptation of the series, the four Pevensie siblings, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), travel through a magical wardrobe to the land of Narnia, where trees can talk and mythical creatures exist. But Narnia isnt just holiday fantasy camp: The evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) has held sway there for 100 years, brutalizing Narnias indigenous creatures and creating a perpetually snowy landscape where its always winter but never Christmas (and as anyone whos lived in Michigan from January to March can attest, winter with no Christmas is a truly horrid prospect). The four Pevensie children, along with a host of talking animals and the great lion Aslan (voice by Liam Neeson), must defeat the Witch in accordance with an ancient prophecy and take their rightful places as the rulers of Narnia.
On the one hand, director Andrew Adamsons cinematic adaptation is beautifully rendered. Aslan looks about as not goofy as a talking lion can aspire to look, and creatures like centaurs and hippogriffs leap to life on the screen. The human casting is spot-on: Swinton, always amazing, is terrifying as the dreadlocked, icicle-adorned White Witch. And for the most part, the child actors execute their parts competently, though Henley and Keynes are standouts.
But something is still missing.
Its no small feat to make fantasy work. Magical happenings must develop organically, out of clearly understandable roots. The task is even harder for a fantasy that begins grounded in our reality.
In Lewis novels, even the mundane world is imbued with a sense of mystery, and Narnia isnt so much a place where magic happens as it is a place thats magical. Its a droll, inviting place, where it seems likely that a faun might invite you into a cozy, overstuffed drawing room for tea and toast. Its hard to see that in Adamsons film. The opening scenes of the movie are set during the Luftwaffes bombing of London.
The book, in contrast, opens with the four Pevensie siblings in situ at the country home of an old professor. Lewis notes, almost parenthetically, that the story is about something that happened to the siblings when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. Thats the only mention the war gets. It takes a long time for the film to recover from a beginning thats so solidly planted in reality. Even when 8-year-old Lucy enters Narnia, it just doesnt feel magical.
Also confusing are some of the choices Adamson has made with the Pevensie clan. The kids arent very likable for at least the first half of the movie they dont even seem to like each other. The movie has clearly tried to make the storys most difficult character, Edmund, more sympathetic. And thanks to Keynes fine acting job, Edmund is the most fully fleshed-out. But this comes at the expense of the others: Susan is a shrew, Peter a disciplinarian. Its troubling that characters so rooted in bonhomie can be made so petulant.
About halfway through, the movie gains enough momentum to sweep up even a disenchanted viewer. The final battle between the forces of good and the White Witchs army is everything fans of the series could have hoped for.
In the hype before the films release, much was made of the books function as a Christian allegory. Though the story contains obvious parallels to Christianity, the movie, like the book, works on two levels: if you want to see Christian symbolism, its there, but if youre a happy heathen, you wont get clobbered on the head with Jesus-y goodness.
Nancy Kaffer writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].