If I'm Lion, I'm Dyin'

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Mr. & Mrs. Beaver in The Chronicles of Narnia

Washington City Paper | December 9, 2005
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has some ready-made admirers: (1) Readers of the beloved C.S. Lewis children's book, obviously. (2) Anyone who geeks out over Lord of the Rings-style fantasy worlds--which isn't any more surprising, given Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's close association at Oxford and shared interest in medieval literature and mythology. And (3) fans of--well, Braveheart, the only film in recent memory to combine armies of thousands, one-on-one smackdowns, and a big ol' Christ figure in quite the same way. If you and your kids don't fit into any of these categories, Narnia just may bore the crap out of the whole family.

Not very surprising, really, given a story in which even gifts from Father Christmas (James Cosmo) come with the message "These are tools, not toys." At least it takes a while to get to the yawn-inducing part of this 140-minute parable, which scripters Ann Peacock, Chris Markus, and Stephen McFeely helped director Andrew Adamson (Shrek) adapt. The World War II-set film starts off with a frightening London air raid, which leads Mrs. Pevensie to pack up her four children--Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley), and Susan (Anna Popplewell)--and send them to a safer place. Already unhappy about the move, the siblings aren't reassured to find that their new home is the dark, cavernous, kid-unfriendly dwelling of a weird, hermitic professor and his cranky housekeeper.

With little else to do but fight, the youngest, Lucy, forces her brothers and sister to play hide and seek. And damn if she's not good at it: Discovering a giant, sheet-covered wardrobe in an empty room, Lucy creeps into the cabinet whose rows of stored furs seem endless. Of course, they do come to an end--right at the border of Narnia, an impossibly pastoral, very English land in which the snow falls softly, the manimals are friendly, and the tea is delicious. When the nice faun-boy she meets, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), tearily confesses that it's his duty to kidnap all humans who enter this delightful realm, Lucy learns that Narnia is actually a miserable place where holiday-free winters have been perpetual since the evil, dreadlocked White Witch (Tilda Swinton) seized power.

Lucy's siblings don't buy her story when she re-emerges from the wardrobe--oh, they of little faith--but eventually each of them gets through to Narnia, too. And they're so dazzled by the pristine alternate universe that they don't resist very much when a hospitable beaver couple (voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) informs them that, as Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve, they're tasked by prophecy to get word of the Witch's oppression to the benevolent lion, um, king, Aslan (Liam Neeson) and join him in fighting her. Their sense of purpose only grows after the Witch takes Edmund hostage.

So far, so good: An eerie old house; wonder, wonder, wonder; and a freaky albino villain who's one serious biatch. Even the journey to find Aslan is pulse-quickening: Led by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, the children face dangers such as crossing a rushing, semifrozen river and evading the Witch's vicious, lightning-quick wolves, which suddenly surround the children as they try to pass her Emerald City-like castle. And the story is never dull when Swinton's Witch is onscreen, outfitted with an often twisted, always bizarre shock of pale hair, various drapes of white, and virtually no eyebrows. It's a performance worthy of the wardrobe, with Swinton efficiently heartless one moment, thunderously fuming the next. She even yells at her creepy little gnome helper.

But then, as is so often the case with stories involving short people, prophesies, and allegorical purpose, the never-ending battles begin. Once Aslan's army of centaurs, Cyclopes, and other mythological beasts charges the Witch's own freak battalion on the field of green, Adamson doesn't shy away from sword- and horse-assisted violence, slipping his camera into the middle of the clash to capture the close-quarters whirling of blade and crunching of bone. These scenes certainly aren't appropriate for very young children--and given the nod-inducing amount of time devoted to them, it's questionable whether even adults should be exposed. In case you missed the Message back at the Stone Table, you'll get it here, with enough epic bombast to stop the story dead.

There are some smaller problems, too. For instance, if you're not amenable to talking live-action forest creatures, then a fox (Rupert Everett) who says things such as "Where are the fugitives?" in a Michael Madsen-y rasp is a second strike against the film. And it's hard to ignore the third no matter who you are: Harry Gregson-Williams' persistent score, which may as well be titled You Will Feel the Magic! On the plus side, the script is occasionally funny--when Peter tries to convince the always logical Susan to join Aslan's crusade on the basis of what Mr. Beaver said, she responds, "He's a beaver. He's not supposed to be saying anything!" And besides one heavy-handed hallelujah moment, Lewis' themes of faith, hope, and selflessness don't come across as strictly Christian ideals but as kinda New Age-y foundations for a harmonious life.

The young actors--none too quippy or cute--also do a great job as feuding siblings who learn to work together and care for one another, especially 10-year-old newbie Henley, who carries a good chunk of the film. And there's no question that Narnia is a magnificent sight. From its inhabitants to its landscapes, the land of Deep Magic is rendered with a vivid, convincing medievalism that will inevitably recall a certain Peter Jackson production. And cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine excels in effecting weather-dependent mood: With the first half of the film largely taking place in the intense, gray-blue iciness of the Witch's turf, it's a welcome relief when the kids escape that environment's perils and reach the lush, sun-drenched green of Aslan's gypsy 'hood. At least Narnia's wars are as pretty as they are interminable.

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