December 23, 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

If you decide to go see Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe you will witness many marvels and wonders. And yet by the final frame, I had found no marvel greater than one little girl's ability to love so openly, freely, and selflessly. I've seen cuter and prettier little girls in movies, but Georgie Henley — who's credited first and deserves to be — towers above the lot of them. Watch her eyes the first time she steps through the wardrobe, and you'll see the wonder so many of us felt the first time we entered Narnia through the pages of a worn old library book. When real terror undercuts that fantasy, she grieves openly and with the fullness of her being. To love is to suffer loss, and one of the film's other great wonders is its steadfast refusal to shy away from consequences or suffering, or let its characters either.
When the Christ parallel reaches its inevitable climax, the movie forces us to watch — and young Susan and Lucy too. They witness the brutality unflinchingly, taking solace in each other of all things, and then grieve over the body and repair some small shreds of dignity to this disfigured form. It won't do any good, they know, but the movie is smart enough to understand the meaning in it. These are children who were raised in an age of horrors, before MTV made genuine feeling passé. Every triumph and loss shines over them; investment in the characters is very nearly unavoidable.
The supporting cast is impeccable. James McAvoy captures the look and spirit of Mr. Tumnus perfectly. I've never heard a beaver talk, but if one did I have little doubt it'd sound like Ray Winstone. Tilda Swinton very nearly Barbara Kellerman as the White Witch in my head, and Kellerman has my childhood on her side. In fact one of the strengths of the movie is the visual interpretation of Narnia, which seemingly springs almost directly from my head. The movie is like a realization of my memory of the BBC miniseries, capturing all of the amplification and texture that my childhood imagination could muster and removing the tell-tale signs of reality that would trip me up today.
Most impressively, it's a fantasy film that remembers colour. The Lord of the Rings series and the last two Harry Potter movies exist largely in a world more grey and dismal than our own. Narnia, especially once the descendants of Adam and Eve rouse it, remembers that fantasy has the potential to be truly fantastic.
And then there is Liam Neeson as Aslan. He is not perfect — the deep throaty rumble of my memory suits a lion far better than a soft Irish brogue, especially one as majestic as Aslan. It bothered me for a while, but then the power and sincerity of what Neeson did achieve took over and I was hooked. More Gandalf than Dumbledore, Aslan doesn't protect our leads from their own failings — or relieve them of sorrow and despair. He does help them realize the potential within themselves for facing and overcoming them. While I would have liked a little greater sense of danger, the famous book declaration that “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good” still applies. One of the great feats of the movie is that by the time He returns the characters have already decided to soldier on without Him, whatever the cost or outcome.
During the final battle, the brothers dive into battle while the sisters nurse the fallen lion's wounds and marvel at his resurrection. It is perhaps an inherently sexist statement, but I left the theatre with the firm belief that the girls were the more heroic.
Finally, I most commend the film for rousing one of the great classics in children's literature from those dusty shelves in the back of the library, and so accurately capturing its many facets. Now perhaps the lingering image of a glowing old lamppost in the middle of a snowy forest clearing won't be limited to the childhoods of the dwindling ranks of the eccentric and exceptionally resourceful variety. ()


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