Friday, December 16, 2005

Film Review - The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The release of two centrically Christian theological films, Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, could not have come at more crucial junctures in modern American history. The thirty-million dollar budgeted The Passion of the Christ, which then went on to gross more then three-hundred and seventy-million dollars in North America alone by the end of its run in theatres, played brilliantly off of Michael Moore’s seething anti-Bush propagandist piece Fahrenheit 9/11 and by November of that year proved to be momentous in the president’s reelection victory, although it was far from the true issue which garnered him the majority of the people’s vote (that being his stance toward the war against terrorism). The release of the second of six books in the Chronicles of Narnia series comes at a time when American Christians, many of whom side with in some shape or another with the Republican Party, find themselves in pitched battle against the intimations of political correctness and multiculturalism in their retention of the significance and sanctity of Christmas itself. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will likely play a less indicative role then The Passion of the Christ did toward the political environment of the country last year and yet its direct allusions to Christ and his message will almost certainly be a factor in the way Christians are motivated maintain their traditions and be less reluctant to give them up for anyone.

The story for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe remains true to both C.S. Lewis’s epic vision of the whimsical world of Narnia and all those who inhabit it and the Christian undertones which encompass the plot and character developments of the entire book series. This said however, the feature film adaptation of the classic children’s novel does take its fair share of creative liberties in regards to specific plot elements which, for lack of a better word, fail to translate as effectively onto the screen as Lewis may have hoped they would. Rather then tarnishing C.S. Lewis’s epic, they instead enhance the emotional intensity of the plot. For example, there is a scene not presented in the book in which the White Witch’s secret police (wolves) are in hot pursuit of Peter, Susan, and Lucy as they cross the thawing river. This accentuates the potency of the situation and makes for a far more engaging experience then any minimal description penned in the novel could have. Furthermore, scenes like the opening sequence of the film in which German (Nazi) planes are seen bombing the city of London, an event now referred to as The Battle of Britain, fills in the gaps of background information left absent by Lewis. And while Adamson falls short of addressing the specifics of either the Nazis who bombed Britain or the Second World War in general, he leaves just enough room to allow parents at their own discretion to discuss these events in more detail with their own children as they see fit.

All four child actors in the roles of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie do a splendid job in their respected roles. There are however some issues with their characters. Peter’s transformation from a gangling British preteen into a cunning and formidable warrior and inspirational leader of Aslan’s army is one point of contention. It comes off as a bit miraculous, if not a bit implausible, and may be difficult for some people to swallow. Nevertheless, this is a fantasy film after all and it can just as easily be contributed to magic.

James McAvoy is positively magnificent in the role of Mr. Tumnus, the faun, or half-man/half-goat, who is the first creature in the world of Narnia to befriend the young Lucy when she initially enters the magical wardrobe. His interaction with Lucy, played adorably by newcomer Georgie Henley, is emotionally priceless and works every bit as well as one might have imagined reading the children’s novel. The character himself is representative of two crucial concepts author C.S. Lewis introduces in the novel. While the faun is a creature often associated with Greek/Roman paganism, he is not necessarily an evil character. Although he does stray from the righteous path in the beginning, he quickly comes to see the error of his ways and repents. Lewis’ point here is that while Christianity is preferred above all other religions, every religion strives toward the virtues of charity and compassion. So when you boil down to the basics of religion, there is a common element that every one of us can relate to. The second point Lewis makes with the introduction of Mr. Tumnus is that while Christians are susceptible to sin and may initially fall prey to it, whether it be out of fear or necessity, we still have the choice to realize we are in the wrong and make up for our mistakes as Mr. Tumnus does.

Tilda Swinton is emphatically conniving as the white witch Jadis, an evil enchantress who rules the realm of Narnia with a cold iron fist, turning anyone who crosses her path into stone and stowing away the hope of all its inhabitants with continuous winter without Christmas. Jadis signifies the figurative temptation of sin and evil in the world. While on the outside she may emit a certain ambiance about her that makes her attractive and desirable, once Edward gives in to the white witch’s desire to capture Peter, Susan, and Lucy, he comes to grips with her true nature which is malevolent to the core. And while some readers are quick to associate Jadis with Satan, supreme rule of Hell, most literary scholars agree that she may very well be a servant of Lucifer but not the actual Prince of Darkness himself since there is no direct correlation between her actions and those of Satan as opposed to the equivalence between Aslan and Jesus Christ. Her demise, however, is not as dramatic as it should have been and feels a bit rushed as soon as the resurrected Aslan arrives on the battle scene.

Overall, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is every bit as magnificent as readers dreamed it would be and exceeds nearly every expectation, though certainly far from all of them, writer C.S. Lewis may have set down for its adaptation in the last fifty years since audiences first discovered the world of Narnia. Parents however should seek to take certain precautions with their younger children as there particular scenes in the film, specifically the sacrifice of Aslan on the Stone Table, which are emotionally profound and may be too stimulating for smaller audiences. Nevertheless, if children of a specific age demographic are able to sit through the latest Harry Potter picture with little if any difficulties at all then they should be fine toward this film. The musical score, conducted by Academy Award-winning composer Harry Gregson-Williams, famous for compositions for Shrek and Team America: World Police, is not nearly as memorable as those for The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter franchises, lacking anything related to a reoccurring musical theme, but at the same time it reaches the right emotional depth, particularly in the Battle for Narnia, while not overshadowing the actions or dialogue onscreen. Director Andrew Adamson and, more importantly, the new leadership of the Walt Disney Corporation who have in the past been far from what one would consider a close friend to the Christian community should be commended for not downplaying the allusions to Christian theology, particularly Aslan as a mirror-image of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in an age where political correctness has dominated modern society. There is still much debate amongst the literary community as to whether the Christian allegories in The Chronicles of Narnia series were intentional or not on the part of adult Christian convert C.S. Lewis. Regardless of the true answer, if one does indeed exist, anyone unfamiliar with the suggested theological prospects of the story will hardly notice and their perception of the film so go unchanged. Though comparisons are likely to made to The Lord of the Rings series or even the Harry Potter franchise, nonetheless the special effects of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe hold their own as dazzling and the physical environment which encompasses the characters of the film, all shot on the island of New Zealand where Peter Jackson’s King Kong and the three Lord of the Rings films were also filmed, is nothing short of breathtaking. Notwithstanding allegations from the ACLU quick to label The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a piece of unmitigated brainwashing propaganda from the religious right who seek to convert the ‘pagans’ to Christianity, the film remains a timeless fantasy classic and an emotionally grappling motion picture event, theological allusions or not.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A)