Narnia: a more noble attempt at family adventure

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Oh - behold the scenes of brutality, the nightmarish little creatures, the harsh language, the devil-may-care asocial attitudes, the dangerous shrapnel flying about, the on-the-edge-of-your-seat terror!

No, not in the movie, silly - that's what it was like driving an SUV-load of holiday-wound kids from our house to the Vista III.

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," was actually quite restful in comparison.

"Narnia" is a modern rarity - a children's film that is so rich in imagery and so spillbinding in the telling that adults will find it just as entertaining if not more so than do their offspring.

As I remember it, the story is fairly true to the classic book of C.S. Lewis, if a tad more battle-oriented and a bit less introspective to its "Deep Magic" themes. It is more charming than the Lord of the Rings movie based on the writings of Lewis' old Oxford running mate Tolkein; a little less dark and foreboding than the latest Harry Potter, and unlike either, I didn't find myself counting ceiling tiles into unconsciousness long before it was over.

"Narnia" is a charming if dangerous alternative universe populated by talking animals and unusual human-beast conglomerations like warrior centaurs and a faun - a polite satyr who introduces our young heroes to the battle for their lives and this strange land.

Enter the Pevensie siblings into the snowy woodland - Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter - who have been sent of the country home of a mysterious old professor to escape the Nazi bombings in World War II England. (Do you notice it's always well-behaved English-type kids with names like Nigel who appear in these fantasy magic films, from Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh down to Potter? Don't you suppose kids or authors of other ethnicities have imagination? Why not a Prince Vinnie?)

With little Lucy leading the way, the kids stumble through a huge wardrobe and out the back side straight into the icy world of Narnia, where it has been foretold that four humans will one day end the 100-years winter and become the royal monachs of the land.

Wouldn't you just know it, though, as it turns out, they must first do battle with raging rapids, trash-talking wolves, an army of dwarves and giants, and a diabolical White Witch.

This relentless Ice Queen manages to be unintentionally hot as well as oddly stiff and cruely untanned. Tilda Swinton steals the show with a crazy-eyed Amazonian evil that seemed to remind the local crowd of the agony of insect bites, since a woman to my right yelled out during the show, "Oh, what a Bee Itch!"

The kids are ably assisted by babbling beavers and an appropriately sly fox, and of course, the mighty lion Aslan. As you might expect, the human characters have nowhere near the charisma of the beast.

Some see the Lewis tale as religious, citing the resurrection of the lion as standing for Jesus, the White Witch as Satan and the Deep Magic as Christianity, and in fact, it is as much fun to try to decipher Lewis' complex networks of metaphorical creations as it is to follow his story.

The film plays upon the ideals of courage and sacrifice to the hilt, but does not belabor any religious pretensions, and children are not likely to be left praying to inevitable poseable plastic Burger King Aslan action figures.

Liam Neeson, by the way, voices the lion in memorable fashion. By the end, it doesn't even seem strange to hear animals speaking.

A courageous battle ensues, much bigger than the book's, amid all the other adventures, in a classically pure clash of good vs. evil.

The computer-generated animal characters meld in amazingly well with the actors, making "Narnia" easier to watch than the likes of "Rings" and "Potter." The special effects are remarkable - look closely at the lion's eyes - but not so over the top that they overpower the story.

And while there is plenty of violent intention, there is little actual bloodshed, and the characters who are hurt tend to get mended, sparing perhaps some nightmares for the younger set.

I've read that author Lewis once said that he hoped his tale would never be put on film, fearing that a mockery would be made of his animal characters.

Were the grand storyteller alive today, I expect that he would not be displeased by this movie. If you missed it, don't despair. Lewis produced seven "Narnia" tales, and Disney is no doubt already casting for "Prince Caspian" as it seeks to make a franchise of this new version of "lion king."