There are several things to be grateful for in Disney's adaptation of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which, considering how beloved the source, comes as a relief. Most people who read the C.S. Lewis series as kids recall it with a fierce and proprietary fondness. But aside from an added prologue that kicks off the story in London and helps to ground it in a reality against which to contrast the fantasy to come, the movie remains faithful to the book in both tone and imagery. As soon as I finish this, I'll be sending thank-you notes to whomever it was that managed to avoid conforming to nervous marketers' notions of what "the kids" are into these days. Rather unbelievably — but oh so felicitously — Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) have made it onto the screen as British children (accents and all) who haven't been remotely coolified. They're starchy, polite, dressed in boiled wool and excited at the prospect of sardines on toast.
Some evangelical groups have been promoting the movie as " 'The Passion' for kids," which makes it sound potentially like a greater source of lifelong trauma than "Bambi." But the Christian allegory embedded at its chewy center serves less as evangelical cudgel than a primer on morality and the myths we create to explain it. The magical land of Narnia is a place where Western myths and religions (classical, Christian, Celtic, Norse, you name it) are jumbled together so that we may consider their similarities and uses. If it weren't for Lewis' stated intention to write a fantastical story to make the dogma go down, it might even come across as a liberal humanist parable about myth and its function in society, especially during times of trouble.
Directed by Andrew Adamson, who reminds us of his pedigree with visual allusions to "Shrek" (the giants look mighty familiar), "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is the kind of story kids love for all the age-old reasons. It features a quartet of pseudo-orphaned London children living more or less on their own in a rambling, comfortable setting (dad is off fighting the war, mum has shipped them to the country during the Blitz), who discover a portal into an alternate universe ruled by magic.
Sent to live with an absent-minded professor (Jim Broadbent) and his grim housekeeper on an old country estate full of forgotten rooms and mysterious furniture, the children discover, one by one, that the wardrobe in the spare room leads to a land called Narnia, where, according to a prophesy, they are to inherit the throne with the help of a messianic lion named Aslan.
Lucy is the first to discover Narnia when she hides in the wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek. Emerging from the row of coats into a snow-covered wood, she encounters a friendly faun named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), who invites her over for tea. There, he fills her in on the political situation and chickens out on his intended plan: The White Witch, a dreadlocked ice queen played by Tilda Swinton, has cursed Narnia, making it always winter and never Christmas, and has instructed its inhabitants to turn over any human child to her for execution.
Next through the wardrobe is naughty Edmund, who runs into the White Witch and is lured into her camp with ample helpings of Turkish delight, which I'm told is a popular confection in England but, to an American reader in the early 1980s, sounded pretty exotic and possibly illicit. In any case, what Edmund gets is a sweet so intoxicating that it makes the boy sell out his siblings for another taste. Edmund gets hooked and spills the Aslan-related beans. When the four children find their way to Narnia soon afterward, Edmund is abducted, and Peter, Susan and Lucy team up with Aslan and his followers to save Edmund and take back the kingdom.
Narnia is a fantasy universe, featuring talking beavers, solicitous fauns, evil wolves and more chain mail and velvet than a Renaissance fair. Visually, the film stays remarkably true to the book's simple illustrations by Pauline Baynes and at the same time comes to life in a spectacularly realistic fashion. The inhabitants of Narnia run the gamut from humble rodent to mythical man-beast, and all but one (the Disneyish fox, who has eyes like shooter marbles and a smiley snout) could pass for real until they open their mouths to speak. You get the sense the paint hasn't yet dried on the technology. It's a magical world without the annoying pixie-dust "magical" tropes that make so many children's movies an exercise in condescension. What's best about it is that it seems real by the logic of childhood — it looks as things should look, if kids had it their way.
It's also governed by a child's idea of a perfect society — one that's as democratic as it is mythically hierarchical, black and white as it is idealized. Mythical creatures peaceably coexist elbow-to-hoof with woodland animals, jungle cats and humanoids in chain mail in defiance of every natural, mythical and geographical law there is. Santa Claus, witches, talking animals and a furry, benevolent Jesus figure exist on a single plane. If a scene featuring the torment and grisly execution of Aslan is meant to recall the crucifixion (the lion is eventually resurrected, thanks to the rules of the "deep magic" that governs Narnia), the other stuff cancels it out. That is, unless Christianity has lately been amended to allow for the Christ figure in pitched battle against a witch, a Minotaur and evil dwarfs (the centaur, the faun and flying wildcats are on his side), which, these days, you never know.
None of it would work so well if the children, especially Lucy and Edmund, weren't such delightfully down-to-earth types. Henley and Keynes stand out as characters who've somehow avoided being processed through the Hollywood filter of how children behave. A buck-toothed imp with a wonderfully expressive face, Henley is a marvel of assurance and charm. And Keynes, as the surly and haughty Edmund, is a perfect foil. As Peter and Susan, Moseley and Popplewell suffer from Lewis' impoverished view of grown-up boys and girls. Peter is a bit of a sap and Susan a nagging pessimist lacking in courage and conviction, a wet blanket whose moniker ends up being the flabby "Queen Susan the Gentle."
As the children gain ground against the witch, Narnia begins to thaw, and a pre-Coca-Cola St. Nick returns to hand out gifts — a sword for Peter, a bow and arrow for Susan, a dagger for Lucy. The story climaxes with a scary battle scene. No wonder that some might take it as religious instruction: It's a medieval vision of Christianity for another dark age, with the Christ figure as soldier and war as the way to make the world safe for Santa Claus. As a Christian primer, it's terrible. As a story, it's timeless.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times