It’s 1941 London. Hideous German planes drop death on the city, forcing thousands of youngsters to seek refuge in the countryside. Among them are the four Pevensie children. There’s Peter, about 15 (William Moseley), Susan, 14 (Anna Popplewell), and Edmund, 9 (Skandar Keynes). At 7, little Lucy (Georgie Henley) is the youngest, but she’s also the most fearless, leading the others into adventure (and stealing every scene). Among all the fabulous elements that director/technical wizard Andrew Adamson (Shrek) pulls from his bag of computer-generated tricks — and they are many and spectacular — it’s the flesh-and-blood children in Narnia who make its greatest magic.
As Chronicles author C.S. Lewis himself did during the war, Professor Kirk (Jim Broadbent) finds himself the clueless caretaker of someone else’s children and chooses disappearance as the better course of valor. While playing hide-and-seek in Kirk’s spacious mansion, Lucy discovers an antique wardrobe. She opens its huge door, pushes her way through its shadows — and steps into a brilliant white wonderland.
The look on Lucy’s face — literally incandescent with delight — is the stuff of unforgettable movie moments. Narnia is a magical yet believable place, lush with natural beauty and supernatural undercurrents, a land equally amusing and scary. Talking animals and mythical creatures coexist; it’s not unlike the rowdy bar in Star Wars actually, but with roots in ancient sagas and medieval romances, where knights in shining armor fight side by side with centaurs and unicorns. However, this wonderful world is not in Middle Earth or a galaxy far, far away — it’s right next door.
Near the lamplight in the snowy forest, Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus, a skittish fawn who’s part enchanting actor (James McAvoy), part CG effects goat. Over tea and sardines at his house (a comfy hideaway that Bilbo Baggins would admire), he explains how the White Witch has cursed Narnia with 100 years of winter — without Christmas. The witch (Tilda Swinton) overcomes goofy gowns and gravity-defying dreadlocks to seize the best adult role in the movie. She’s an arctic Kali, dealing frozen death with her icicle wand and whipping her polar bear-drawn chariot into battle like an Aryan Valkyrie. All her minions, however, are male.
In fact, Narnia is a strangely gender-lopsided place, with nary a benign female creature in sight to nurture the children. Even Mother Nature herself races through without so much as a nod of recognition. (Ah well, The Chronicles of Narnia was written half a century ago, so let’s not ruin its quaint charm with 21st century concerns …)
Like Paleolithic shamans who donned animal skins to call forth the power of their prey, the children drape fur coats from the wardrobe over their shoulders and stride into wintry Narnia. From a helpful beaver couple, who rescue the children from the witch’s snarling wolves, the “sons of Adam” and the “daughters of Eve” discover they are prophesied to save Narnia. In essence, they’ve left one war only to land in another. But the Pevensie kids, true bearers of Britain’s sense of fair play, who are newly armed with magic weapons from Father Christmas, already know that some things are worth fighting for.
Upon their arrival, Narnia’s long winter begins to thaw. Alas, the warming also seems to have melted the lyrical, awestruck intimacy of the film’s snowy preface, replacing it with a conventional, hot-paced trajectory toward battle. (Parental warning: Though bloodless by the new standards of PG screen violence, the movie really stretches the limits of the rating, and the battle scenes are probably too graphic for overly sensitive children.)
The children’s days are taken up with practicing their fighting skills, so unfortunately there’s not enough time to get to know anyone else in the war camp — not even Aslan, the charismatic talking lion (voice of Liam Neeson). The splendid, kingly beast ends up being just another aloof adult male, as he’s not onscreen long enough to establish a convincing relationship with the children.
Audience kids will recognize Aslan’s Christ-like role, if they’ve been prepped for it. His reluctant, albeit willing, self-sacrifice on the Stonehenge-like altar is indeed memorable. (But since Aslan knows he’s going to resurrect in three days, his symbolic sacrifice pales in comparison to the off-screen sacrifices of the children’s soldier father and their mother, who’s left behind to struggle in a war-torn city.)
There’s no question that most kids will love this movie, and from what I’ve seen, they couldn’t care less that adults might think it’s less than perfect. For children, the movie’s magic is what matters. Like the Pevensie children, they’re eager to be transported from everyday life to extraordinary Narnia, to conquer bullies and help good people, to wear the jewel-encrusted crowns of heroes. Rated PG for battle sequences and frightening moments.
– reviewed by Marcianne Miller