Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 24, 2005 7:35 pm 
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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: No disappointments here

C.S. Lewis encouraged his friend Tolkien with his imaginative writing, but the favor was not returned. As his elaborate system in Lord of the Rings shows, Tolkien obviously liked to create a world that was an internally closed system. He didn’t like the way Lewis worked in whatever familiar customs or myths seemed to come in handy. Narnia most notably incorporates central aspects of Christianity; it’s also a world where the children the stories are for enter the story, just as Lewis Carroll’s pet child Alice Liddell enters his fantasy world in Through the Looking-Glass – in Narnia’s case, obviously, through a wardrobe. Lewis’s and Carroll’s books also have in common talking animals, though the Narnia ones aren’t droll and crazy like the mathematician’s. But Narnia is a wonderful story for children, because it has children who are real, but who become heroes.

The first Narnia movie, directed by New Zealand visual effects and Shrek man Andrew Adamson, is perfect in its way. It’s almost too perfect: you may wish somebody or something would stand out more. Maybe Tilda Swinton stands out a bit. Unless you recognize Jim Broadbent behind all his whiskers and makeup, Swinton is the only known actor we actually see onscreen (Liam Neeson’s voice is all too recognizable but it’s attached to the Christlike lion, Aslan). Swinton blends in too, though. She’s so sure and discreet – and so familiar these days as a wicked sprite (cp. her role in Constantine), even her presence may seem routine. She’s even perfectly attired in changing outtits for each scene or season to help her blend in. But she deserves credit, as usual, for her integrity. She plays her role with absolute seriousness and poise. There’s no cuteness about it.

The children, Georgie Henley as Lucy, Skandar Keynes as Edmund, William Moseley as Peter, and Susan Prevensie as Anna Popplewell, a most carefully chosen quartet, are charming, distinctive, and very good actors. Somehow the boys seem to carry the action, while the girls carry the feeling.

The movie is like a big beautiful toy box. The children and the animals come out and do their things, the white witch has her great battle with the forces of Aslan, and then they go away and we feel cozy and satisfied like a child who’s been read to in bed and dozes off, dreaming of snow in a warm room.

Like the classic Conrad Aiken short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” the winter world of Narnia may grow out of a child’s sense that snow is magical and unreal, beautiful but perilous. The snowy landscape of the film is enveloping and lovely, and it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not.

People may take Aslan, the lion of God, differently, but nobody in his right mind can avoid the fact that what happens to him makes him like Christ and his slaughter like the Crucifixion, and his rising back to life off a big slab of stone that cracks like the Resurrection. And the two girls mourning over his body are the two Marys. And young Peter, the King and leader of the army of the good, is St. Peter, the founder of Christ’s Church. C.S. Lewis was an adult convert whose enthusiasm for Christianity was so great he had to tell. But one can see Tolkien’s point. This is what stands out: the Christian symbolism walks away from the story and spoils it a little.

Or maybe seeing all these symbols in a movie simplified, reduced to music and visuals and the voice of Liam Neeson, no longer working solely through the supple language of C. S. Lewis, must rob them of much of their mystery and resonance. Once again the adaptation of a book into a film, while making it lovely and vivid for us, has diminished something that in words is accessible to all, more subtle and complex.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a wonder, a delightful film, but it hasn’t the visual richness of Lord of the Rings, nor has the story the complexity of Tolkien’s elaborate mythology, or its immense variety, its real magic – though with the Harry Potter series running dry, it looks fresh. It’s bright and shiny, like a Christmas tree ornament. It’s a huge project nonetheless. But in this end-of-year moment of small movies with great success artistically – movies like Good Night, and Good luck; Capote; The Squid and the Whale – being a huge project doesn’t impress so much. Syriana falls short precisely because of its overambition.

It’s awesome, though, to watch the credits of Narnia roll. Like Kill Bill’s they go on so long the audience is long gone and the cleanup crew is well on its way to getting all the pop cups and corn bags and wrappers gathered up and the floor swept before the names have stopped scrolling. There are complete crews for Los Angeles, Czechoslovakia, Poland, New Zealand, Guatemala, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and special effects people for each location. I wonder what an Oxford don would have made of all that.

Tilda Swinton is the best androgynous sprite ever, but it’s time (another plug for the small project) for her to do more roles like the needy mother in Mike Mills’s Thumbsucker. She may have taken home a smaller paycheck, but she delivered way more humanity. As for the great battles in The Chronicles of Narnia, they fade quickly from the mind. Better than anything else are the tender early scenes between Mr. Tumnus, the fawn (James McAvoy), and young Lucy. Those who know the book much better than I do tend to say the first part of it is the best. The battle of good and evil may be too much to take in on first viewing, and may sink in when the other parts come out. This is not a great film, but it's impeccable. And the early scenes will stay in the mind a long time.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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