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Murty & Apuzzo: 'Narnia' a Classic Tale for the Ages

Thursday, 08 December 2005 12:00 AM

Walden Media's enchanting "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" opens December 9, and is worthy of support from anyone, whether conservative or liberal, who believes in classic, humanistic storytelling.

Sumptuously produced, intelligently directed and written, "Narnia" is a treat from beginning to end, and does full justice to the original novels by C.S. Lewis.

The film opens dramatically with a WWII German air-raid over London at night. In a scene reminiscent of Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels," German planes appear menacingly out of the clouds over London and begin to bomb the city, as British searchlights sweep through the sky in Art Deco patterns of light.

In the city of London below, a mother and four children rush out of their home to reach the safety of a bomb shelter. In rapid succession we're introduced to the four young leads of "Narnia:" the adorable little Lucy Pevensie (in a wonderful performance by Georgie Henley); sensible older sister Susan (Anna Popplewell); rebellious young Edmund (obviously named after Edmund in "King Lear" and well-played by Skandar Keynes); and cautious older brother Peter (William Moseley).

With their father away at war, their mother (played in classic, British stiff-upper-lip "Mrs. Miniver" fashion by Judy McIntosh) makes the decision to send the children to the countryside for safekeeping. The scene at the train station where the four Pevensie children, along with hundreds of other British children, are loaded onto trains by their parents in order to be sent away to safety, is heartbreaking. One realizes the tremendous sacrifice the British made during the last two World Wars, and the stalwart courage they've always shown in times of conflict - including in their support for America in the War on Terrorism today.

In classic Grimm's fairy tale fashion, the four quasi-orphaned children arrive at a large, gloomy manor house in the country. The severe guardian of the house, an ice-cold housekeeper named Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne), warns them against any display of childish exuberance. A natural show of curiosity - one of the children touches a marble bust on the staircase - is met with a sharp reproof by her. (In a nice touch, the marble bust happens to be of Dante Alighieri.) The owner of the manor, the mysterious Professor Kirke (played by Jim Broadbent, his name seems to be a play on the old English word for church), is a Wizard of Oz-like character who stays hidden behind the scenes for much of the film.

Bored by their dull country existence, the children pass the time with various games in the house. One day during a game of hide-and-seek, little Lucy hides in a wardrobe (British term for "closet" or "armoire") filled with old fur coats. Burrowing back into the closet, Lucy suddenly steps into the magical, wintry world of Narnia. The expression on her face as she surveys the snowy white wood, the magical lamppost, and the icy mountains beyond, is truly marvelous to behold.

Her subsequent encounter with a faun, Mr. Tumnus (charmingly played by James McAvoy), is a delight. One of the wonderful aspects of Lucy¹s character is the way that she meets every new experience with wonder and joy. Of all the children, she is the most courageous, the most adventurous, and the most insightful. And that is why she is chosen to be the first of the Pevensie children to enter Narnia. Unlike her older siblings, Lucy is still open and curious, and therefore still able to accept the non-rational, mystical, and profound.

Lucy returns through the wardrobe to the everyday world, and tells her siblings what she's experienced. In classic fairy-tale fashion, they don't believe her. It seems that the wardrobe only reveals its magical secrets at its choosing, usually when one of the children is in trouble or in an emotional crisis.

Again, this is a classic theme both in fairy-tales and world mythology - children who are cut-off from the God-like protection of their parents and guardians, must fend for themselves in a dangerous world, and are only saved in moments of crisis by a sudden visitation of the divine or magical. It is the moment of crisis that forces the child (or adult) to suspend disbelief, and open herself up to faith. The older the child, the more conditioned she has been by worldly experience, the less able she is to suspend disbelief and enter the world of faith - as symbolized by the magical land of Narnia. That is why the younger siblings, Lucy and Edmund, are able to enter Narnia before their older, more skeptical siblings Susan and Peter.

In any case, once they¹re all in Narnia, a delightful adventure unfolds. It seems that the magical land of Narnia has been under the control of the evil White Witch Jadis (superbly played by Tilda Swinton) for a hundred years.

For a hundred years the White Witch has kept Narnia in a perpetual winter, and for a hundred years she¹s forbidden the celebration of Christmas (The ACLU would love her). The only force resisting the White Witch is an underground movement led by the noble lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson).

Aslan, it has been debated, is intended by "Narnia"'s author C.S. Lewis to be a symbol for Christ (The King of Kings), but of course the lion is also a royal and divine symbol throughout world religion; there are numerous lion-like divine figures in ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Hindu and Buddhist religious symbolism. As a symbol in "Narnia," Aslan is wonderfully successful: gentle, wise, and courageous, he is a leader who governs through moral example, but does not desire power for himself. Aslan is a solitary figure who seems burdened by the weight of the world, but is nonetheless willing to stay in the world (like Christ and the Buddha) to do what is necessary in order for good to triumph. It is Aslan who makes the Pevensie children realize their destiny as the intended rulers of Narnia, and it is Aslan who shows them by example how to lead.

The White Witch herself seems to be a throwback to various witches and goddesses of Celtic and Greek mythology. Her hair is dressed in the snake-like coils of a Medusa, and she drives a war-chariot like the ancient British Queen Boadicca. Tilda Swinton herself has the magnetic intensity and imposing physicality (along with the wicked sense of humor) to be completely believable as a witch/queen/goddess. There are times in the final battle when, holding swords in both hands, she is even reminiscent of the multi-armed Hindu goddess Kali.

In terms of the Celtic symbolism, it's interesting to note that a pivotal scene of sacrifice is played out at a stone table surmounted by megaliths identical to those at Stonehenge, and that the trees themselves are said to be on the White Witch's side (in a nod to Celtic tree worship?). Also, we found it interesting that in the climactic battle sequence, the White Witch would wear a lion headdress and a breastplate covered in the long fur of a lion's mane. Is it perhaps that like a shamaness, the White Witch dons the lion's garb in order to assume his magical powers, or to signify some deeper connection with the figure of Aslan - a connection that surmounts the duality of good and evil? Why would the White Witch be garbed in leonine costume at the end, except perhaps as a sign that she and Aslan are two halves of one whole, and that they are playing out in ritual fashion an eternal cosmic struggle, where good and evil, light and dark, summer and winter, alternate in ascendancy throughout the round of time?

The rest of the movie is filled with exciting chases, vast palaces, epic battles, and all manner of mythological creature. The special effects are outstanding, and we can see why it took three effects houses - Rhythm & Hues, Industrial Light and Magic, and Weta Digital, to complete all the work on ‘Narnia.' Aslan the lion, various delightful talking beavers, foxes, birds, and horses, noble unicorns and centaurs, sprightly fauns, majestic phoenixes and gryphons, plus menacing minotaurs and cyclopses, wicked elves, evil goblins, gibbering orcs, and growling wolves (all straight out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting), are brought to vivid life.

Most importantly, the film has a warm and gentle heart, where goodness and innocence win out over cynicism and evil. The film is two hours and twenty minutes long, but it doesn't lag for a minute. The penultimate scene of the film even has an homage to one of our favorite fantasy films, the first "Star Wars."

"Narnia" might have been written as a Christian allegory, but this is a movie that also draws on classical and world mythology, and can be enjoyed by people of all religious faiths. "The Chronicles of Narnia" is a wonderful film for children and adults alike, and bodes well for Walden Media's future as a high-quality producer of classic entertainment.

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Walden Media's enchanting "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" opens December 9, and is worthy of support from anyone, whether conservative or liberal, who believes in classic, humanistic storytelling. Sumptuously produced, intelligently...
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Thursday, 08 December 2005 12:00 AM
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