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Friday, December 09, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia

I was lucky enough to get to the Essex Outlet Cinemas early enough today to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe before the crowds arrived. And they did arrive. Word of mouth is definitely out on this one and with good reason. When I emerged from the theater I stopped to chat with manager Dale Chapman and the line for the next showing stretched to the door. Everybody is going to want to see this one, and with good reason. Finally, we have a terrific family film that deserves the label "classic."

"Classic" is so loosely bandied about these days, mostly by studio publicity departments that hype everything as if it is the ultimate experience, so it is hard to take the term "classic" seriously anymore. In my mind, a classic is a film that can (and will) remain fresh and meaningful to audiences for generations. Most real classics are films that we remember from an age when people had to go to a movie theater to see them and then in later years could view them only sporadically as an event on television (back in the day when there were only three or four channels and movies on tv were rare). The lack of easy access to these movies helped generate a craving for them that doesn't really exist in this era of video and dvd rentals and hundreds of movie channels available in your home every day. So for a movie to become a genuine, bonifide, honest-to-goodness classic today it has to have something very special going for it, and
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has that.

For anyone who may not know the story of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe it is a simple enough tale: Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie's mother sends them away from London during the Blitz of World War II for their own safety and they come to live at the estate of Professor Digory in the far-off English countryside. While playing hide-and-seek one day, Lucy, the youngest of the four, accidently finds that a wardrobe in an empty upstairs room literally opens to another world, the ethereal kingdom of Narnia.

Narnia is a snowy, magical place, where Lucy quickly meets Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a fawn as he is called in this land. To us he would be described as more like the mythical Pan, half man and half goat. Like all young ladies, Lucy seems unrattled by this odd creature and happily accepts his invitation to tea in his home just a short distance away. It is there that she learns a bit of what is going on in Narnia. They have been plunged into an unending Winter for more than a hundred years by the ruling White Witch Jadis who fancies herself the Queen of Narnia. Here Winter never ends but Christmas never comes. Happiness seems as lacking as Spring flowers. What Mr. Tumnus does not tell Lucy is that as he lulls her to sleep with his flute playing he is also following the law of the White Witch, which is to capture and turn over any human found in Narnia to the police.

A change of conscience by Mr. Tumnus saves Lucy and he helps her escape to the entrance of the backside to the wardrobe before the Witch's police could seize her. What she finds on the other side is that time has not passed a second despite her being gone for what seemed like hours. Of course her brothers Edwin (Skandar Keynes) and Peter (William Moseley) and her sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) think she's got splinters in the windmills of her mind and dismiss her tale as an overuse of the imagination. Naturally, it doesn't end there, of course, or the movie would hardly be inspired by a world-wide best seller, now would it?

In short time Edwin follows Lucy into the wardrobe and on his own meets up with the White Witch, introduced by her henchman only as the Queen of Narnia, naturally. He is mesmerized by
her magic and her promises of making him royalty if only he was to bring the rest of his family to Narnia to live there as well. Of course he sees this as an opportunity for himself to emerge from behind older brother Peter's shadow and take center stage. What he doesn't see is that he has unwittingly indicted poor Tumnus by revealing that it was the fawn who aided in Lucy's escape earlier.

Soon all four Pevensie children are in Narnia and Edmund curiously defects to the White Witch's castle while Lucy discovers of Tumnus' capture by the Witch's guards. These disturbing events move Peter, Susan and Lucy to join forces with their new acquaintances, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, rodents remarkably realized by CGI, in a mutual attempt to work together for the better good of all concerned.

I hate to digress (I know I always do, but it can't be helped) but The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by far exceeds anything done before with special effects, most notably with computer generated characters. I tend not to enjoy those special effects spectaculars where the CGI seems to exist simply to show the audience that it can be done, but in order to make that point it has to be obvious (are you listening, Mr. Lucas?). Here, the CGI is so seamless, so creative, so unobtrusive that it does not seem the least bit unnatural or out of place that the Pevensie children should be sharing a meal with a couple of married beavers or that they should later be fighting a war alongside rhinos, cheetas, centaurs, unicorns and any other number of real or imaginary creatures.

The Beavers explain to their guests just what their importance to Narnia is. Prophecy has said that one day four humans, two sons of Adam, two daughters of Eve, would arrive to bring peace to Narnia. At this same time in the East the courageous and charismatic Aslan, who is the true King of Narnia, is gathering an army of disciples to defeat the White Witch and her followers.
The Beavers see these two events as a sign that Spring may soon finally return to their valley as long as they can rescue Edmund, for without all four humans the prophesy can not be fulfilled. They know it and so does Jadis, who has every reason to kill young Edmund to prevent her own downfall.

What unfolds from this point is a fast-paced adventure as the Pevensies seek to rescue Edmund and join up with Aslan while evading the viscious wolf guards that are tracking them along with the White Witch. They face challenges along the way but none that come close to their ultimate confrontation in a battle of forces between good and evil that includes all the creatures of Narnia in an out-and-out war.

Andrew Adamson, co-directer of the first two Shrek films, definitely does not disappoint in his first solo directorial feature. He has done an excellent job in casting his film. The young actors playing Lucy, Peter and Edmund are all making their feature film debuts in this movie and Adamson has successfully chosen young people who seem to flawlessly become their characters. They are not your 'precious' actor kids seen in most productions. There are no attempts at mugging for the cameras, no Macaulay Culkin face-slapping screams, no Gary Coleman "Whatcha talkin' bout Willis?" catch-phrases, and no Lindsay Lohan cleavage shots. These kids really seem like they are actually normal children who are as much in awe of their adventure as we the audience are.

In addition to the four children, kudos must also go to Tilda Swinton as Jadis, the White Witch. She has had a peculiar career over the years, playing everything from a young man (Orlando) to an angel (Constantine), but this seems to be a role made for her. The ice cold demeanor of the Witch is so perfectly reflected in Swinton's pale skin and almost tranluscent eyelashes. She looks as if she is as cold as Jadis' evil heart must be.

As for the most important role, and the one whose success hinges as much on the voice acting as the CGI that creates him, the role of Aslan is beautifully acted by Liam Neeson, who breathes life, emotion and true spirit into The Lion of the title. Amazingly, as we see more of Aslan I found myself almost seeing Liam Neeson in his expressions and mannerisms, the melding of voice to animation was so perfect.

Much has been made over the years about the Christian symbolism in the novel version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and even C.S. Lewis said in interviews that he called his story a "supposedly", as in "What if, supposedly, Christ came to earth as a talking lion?" His close friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy among many other works, also played an influence in Lewis' writing of Narnia as he and Lewis often read their works in progress to one another and it was Tolkien who brought the one-time agnostic Lewis to embrace Christianity in the first place. That said, the religious context is no more apparent in this film than in other epic fantasies like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, although it does have slightly more bearing on the main themes of sacrifice and redemption that permeate this story. Still, I would not let talk of religious themes deter you from seeing this film. What makes The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe so accessible is its focus on topics that we can all relate to in some form - betrayal, forgiveness, selfless sacrifice, family, and loyalty. For Christians, the allegory behind the story certainly gives the film more meaning as Aslan, the Christ figure, battles the Devil's representative, the White Witch, but those who aren't as spiritually inclined this will still be an epic story of battle between good and evil. The spiritual parallels are easy to recognize, but they're never heavy-handed.

The biggest problem I can see with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is in the timing of its' release. This is a tremendous Christmas movie for the whole family that, unfortunately, has been released just five days before that big ape King Kong is due in theaters, including our own Essex Outlet Cinemas. It's going to be a challenge for the Pevensie children to be avoid getting squashed by the giant monkey, but hopefully, audiences will want to see both.

And for the safety of all concerned, Dale assures me that if you do see anything huge and hairy at the Essex Outlet Cinemas come Wednesday you can be assured it is King Kong and not Star Jones.

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