The Chronicles of Narnia starts off well enough. The four engaging Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and the irrepressible young Lucy, huddle in their living room while Hitler’s bombers strafe London. As the explosions near, their panicked mum herds them into the cellar. Next thing they know, they’re boarding a train for the safety of the English countryside. As their mother tearfully sends them off in the crush of the station, their anguish is palpable. Unfortunately, it is just about the most moving scene in the film. Because it is human.
So, too, is the interplay between the siblings as they try to keep a stiff upper lip while making themselves at home in the huge country estate of the mysterious Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent in a role better suited to Christopher Lloyd.) While these scenes are slow, there is definite life to them, and the sets are rich, varied, and intriguing. And so we are hopeful when Lucy, having found the perfect place to secret herself during a game of hide and seek, discovers that the wardrobe she’s climbed into is actually the door to a snow covered forest. Our sense of wonder grows as she meets a friendly faun (a.k.a., satyr) who introduces himself as Mr. Tumnus. Vividly played by James McAvoy, we feel a thrilling pinprick of magic, and are both delighted, and a little fearful, when Lucy happily agrees to go to his house for tea. His home turns out to be a hobbit like cave in the side of a rock hill with an arched door, and as she enters the look in his eyes tells us that all is not as benign as it seems. While we know that she can’t actually be in the kind of danger this intimates, it is still riveting.
However, Mr. Tumnus is soon ushering Lucy back to the wardrobe and her “world”, putting himself in grave peril, and we know that the story everyone has come to see is about to begin. The trouble is, from the moment a few scenes later when Lucy and her siblings set foot onto snowy Narnian ground, the film begins to flatten. The story is so thin and underdeveloped that it feels surprisingly linear, as if we were following a very narrow path, with little knowledge of what lies on either side of it. The bleak winter landscape, which remains surprisingly monochromatic when spring finally blooms, adds to the monotony.
Throughout we are only given the barest, most black and white details of what the kids have walked into. Aslan, a lion who apparently has been gone for the past hundred years, is the rightful the king of Narnia. From the moment he left, or was vanquished, or whatever happened, the evil White Witch (marvelously played by Tilda Swinton, who seems to have forgotten to take the hanger out of her dress) has been in change, and it’s been winter ever since. But, for some reason, there’s been no Christmas. Wait, Christmas? If Narnia is a mythical community devoid of humans, or as they so quaintly put it, “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”, how the heck did they get a hold of Christmas? Okay, we all know the answer to that.
The problem is that the Christian allegory laced into Narnia, while it will no doubt fly over the heads of the tots in the audience, has made mincemeat of the story. Sure, it has all the de rigueur elements of a fantasy epic — selflessness triumphs after great sacrifice (with a genuine resurrection, no less), bravery is rewarded, and good conquers evil. Regrettably, we don’t get enough of the specific story to really care. After Aslan’s mid-film homily, which isn’t helped by Liam Neeson’s mournful seriousness, there is no real attempt to make sense of what the ultimate battle is actually about. From the minute it begins, it’s as if all of Narnia has become a backdrop against which the Pevensie kids can work out their family loyalties.
Unfortunately, the slow pacing gives one time to actually ponder many of the film’s more curious aspects. The most benign being the way the cute talking beavers seem to have cribbed their dialog from a sitcom -– the female beaver is concerned with her looks, the male, with her cooking.
And there is something odd about the Pevensie brood. If they were puppies, you’d be sure Edmund had a different dad. The other three have wide blue eyes, and light hair. Edmund’s eyes are brown and his hair, nearly black. It’s quite jarring. My first thought was, what, they ran out of blue-eyed moppets? But when Edmund turns out to be the betrayer, it’s jarring again, in a decidedly darker way.
But there is something darker still going on here. While Aslan’s army is full of large wholesome looking beasts, (their faces are for the most part human, their bodies graceful, their skin glows), the White Witch’s army is uniformly hideous. Ugly, deformed, twisted, small and slimy. In other words, sub-human. Thus, no one ever has to give a second thought to killing them. They deserve it. This simple minded demonizing of the enemy for the sake of “entertainment” leaves a legacy that the audience carries with it into the sunlight. Witness just about any war. And when it comes to Christian warfare, one doesn’t need allegory, although it’s probably more palatable than remembering the Crusades.
In the end, when we watch from behind as the children stroll triumphantly through the castle that is now their own, we can’t help wishing that it was Luke, Leia and Han Solo who are about to take the stage. It sure looks like the same scene.
And that leads to another nagging question: If these four siblings are now the kings and queens of Narnia, a country in which they are the only humans, where will the princes and princesses come from? Don’t answer. I want the sequel to surprise me.