Rule, "Narnia," "Narnia" rule the waves -- and it certainly will, or at least the waves of overstimulated children and grateful parents whose tidal rush breaks upon the nation's multiplexes during the holidays. As a destination, it should please members of both generations.
Andrew Adamson's sterling version of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the perdurable C.S. Lewis classic of children's fantasy, is well told, handsome, stirring and loads of fun. It's also, for mordant ironists, a rich vein of psychological ore revelatory of the beloved "Jack" Lewis, as he nicknamed himself, who wrote children's classics by night, taught and lectured on medieval English lit at Oxford and Cambridge by day and, by very late of night, dreamed of spanking various ladies of his acquaintance.
Well, we shall speak no more of that little quirk. Taken at face value, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" decodes into a kind of dashing view of colonialism for the pre-pubescent set, an empire-and-faith fable set in a fantasy world whose relation to the real one will be, for adults, its most fascinating element. For kids, the pleasure will be in some of the best special effects of the year. And for both, the overarching endearment will be a narrative that speeds through its two-hour-plus running time.
The movie has attracted some pre-release pub because it is famously a "Christian allegory." And yes, it's true, Lewis was a well-known adult convert to Anglicanism (from the intellectual's fashionable atheism) who wrote much about his faith in God. Maybe too much; some find him a bully on the subject. Whatever, it is true that the plot he engineered for the first of his seven "Chronicles of Narnia" reenacts the march to Golgotha, the ugliness enacted thereupon, and the good news three days hence, when someone powerful arises and gives hope to a death-haunted world. However, in the role of Jesus Christ is a lion named Aslan who, no matter how holy he may be, is still a lion, and when he paws an enemy to the ground, he then bites its head off. That's pure big carnivore and a long way from Christ's admonition to turn the other cheek.
The fantasy seems just as, if not more, plumped up with symbols of that other modern religion, the state. You can feel Lewis the professional writer cleverly pandering to his readership of patriotic, well-educated middle-class English adolescents of the '50s. It's a veddy British Isles kind of thing, with a lord of all being the majestic lion, symbol of Britain on the royal shield, along with the unicorn, the heraldic symbol of Scotland, and then the unicorn shows up as a steed upon which a valiant young knight charges into battle. Lions and unicorns, oh my! There are so many other Britishisms it's almost unsporting (and certainly dull) to list them all, from landscape to culture to gear to weather. It climaxes in a giant, linchpin-of-history battle so familiar to the Brits, as they rarely lost one (the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Battle of Britain). But more important, there's a kind of empire assumption underlying it all.
The movie is really another in a long line of unquestioning colonial morale-raisers, so necessary for the maintenance of empire, circa 1950, when the book was published: It's about the arrival in a troubled land (Narnia, in whose syllables may be heard a faint echo of "Britannia") of white Britons of noble visage, pale beauty and steely bearing in the middle of a war of darker creatures. Our boys and girls immediately move to center stage -- indeed, it turns out that their coming has been foretold -- and they are quickly appointed to leadership positions. The boys get to be knights, the girls princesses, every British boy and girl's fantasy. Thus elevated, they lead the darker masses in battle to victory, and stay behind to rule magnificently and justly. Talk about Kipling's White Man's burden!
But Lewis gets his little redcoats into Narnia by the most lamely imagined conduit. It's a simple wardrobe, a storage cabinet for out-of-season clothes. He couldn't take the kids through a looking glass, a wishing well, a magic door, a diamond facet? Nah. When Lucy Pevensie (adorable Georgie Henley) finds refuge in the big box on the upper floor of an ornate mansion where she and her three siblings are waiting out the Blitz, she finds herself suddenly in Narnia. No explanation given, no explanation needed.
Lucy wanders about, running into the faun Mr. Tumnus (part James McAvoy, part computer illustration) and learning it's eternally snowy in Narnia because the White Witch Jadis (the fabulous Tilda Swinton) has taken over, declared eternal winter and outlawed Christmas. Only the legendary lion king Aslan can stop her, with a little help from Santa Claus. The last touch may be a bit much (Lewis's Oxford buddy J.R.R. Tolkien thought so) and you may wonder, where where where is Tiny Tim?
Lucy returns to reality, and after some hemming and hawing gets her three siblings -- treacherous Edmund (Skandar Keynes), noble Peter (William Moseley) and timid Susan (Anna Popplewell) to join her. The first thing they notice -- after the gas lamp in the forest -- is the talking beaver. And that is the signal technical excellence of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe": the beaver.
Director Andrew Adamson came up through special-effects discipline, reaching the apotheosis of that craft in movies that were all effects all the time: the "Shrek" films. In "Narnia" he has brilliantly supervised the nearly impossible: supple, expressive animal faces. That is, actual performances from the masses of hard-drive-accumulated electrons (or whatever the hell they are) that represent the creatures: It's all here, the whole human spectrum, from the sparkle in an eye to the heft of a jowl or the twitch of a nostril, the lick of a lip, all those little nuances of expression that are completely beyond the reach of actual animals. Even Aslan himself (voiced by Liam Neeson) isn't just an MGM or a royal lion or even, really, a Lion King: He's more, a subtly hued study of wisdom, courage and fire undercut with Christ's most appealing human characteristic, his doubt. He knows where he's going to end up.
The human performers are not far behind the animated ones. The four children are convincing, particularly the young Henley, and Keynes is close behind as Edmund, tormented by his attraction to the witch, willing at first to sell out siblings and beavers all. And you believe it, too, because of Swinton's cruel, chilly witch, with frosted hair and the demeanor of a Vogue editor accidentally abandoned in a fish market who then becomes a superb warrior queen in the battle sequence, almost carrying the field with her steel chariot and samurai sword moves. Her evil disdain and high style are perfect, and she makes you feel the charisma of evil and why it could attract the troubled odd-boy-out Edmund. At the same time, Jadis is not as comically overwrought, as, say, Glenn Close's Cruella De Vil in the Disney live-action variants on "101 Dalmatians." Her Jadis is just thoroughly mean and unpleasant, every schoolchild's sneering, domineering, perfect teacher.
I should say that the movie rides its PG rating right to the very edge; its evocation of animal death and battlefield mayhem and jeopardy to children is extremely powerful, and some kids may find it disturbing. Parents should be warned that the movie is far more explicit than the book and consider carefully before taking their younger children. Most disturbing of all is the scene that replicates the Crucifixion, the actual death of a Christ-figure before his Resurrection. There's no blood, but in all these sequences there are spasms of pain, the plain view of piercing and stabbing, and the final surrender to stillness. Finally, a fleet of wolves serves as the White Witch's secret police, and they too are disturbing creatures, full of menace and intensity.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG and contains intense, if bloodless, violence and death.