And God said, “Let there be a big-screen version of The Chronicles of Narnia, and let it draw the same fantasy-loving audience as The Lord of the Rings,” and it was so. And God’s people rejoiced that unsuspecting moviegoers would witness the story of Jesus’ sacrifice, only with a lion and a witch and magic wands and sort of sexually creepy fauns instead of, you know, the incarnate Son of God. And God’s servant Andrew Adamson kept the adaptation faithful to C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, right down to the bluebottle fly buzzing in the spare room and the mothballs falling out of the wardrobe as Lucy, the youngest of the four Pevensie children, enters for the first time.
But something is amiss in the land of Narnia; much that should be wondrous falls flat. Perhaps it’s because the film was something of a rush job. Despite beautiful designs, an evocative backstory and competent pacing that makes the movie’s 140 minutes fly by, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ultimately lands short of the mark due to—of all things—a lack of imagination.
Granted, the standard for fantasy filmmaking post-Lord of the Rings is almost impossibly high. And the comparisons can’t be avoided: Lewis’ Narnia arose out of the same literary crucible that produced Tolkien’s work, not to mention that the Narnia film project would never have been attempted without Peter Jackson’s enormous success.
In Lewis’ story, four children who have fled to the countryside during the London Blitz discover a magical land inhabited by talking animals and mythical creatures. Narnia has suffered a century-long winter thanks to the evil rule of the White Witch, but there is a prophecy that “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” will overthrow the witch and release the land from her icy grip. Moreover, Aslan the lion, Narnia’s true guiding spirit, has returned from an unexplained absence to inspire the rebellion.
Naturally, the White Witch (the splendid Tilda Swinton, in outrageously fabulous makeup) tries to thwart the prophecy by luring the children into her castle, where she will freeze them into stone statues. And Aslan himself has to undergo terrible trials to satisfy something called “the Deep Magic,” a kind of natural law of the land. “The Passion of the Lion” is a central sequence in both book and movie, but the cinematic flaws of this climactic moment reveal much that’s wrong with Adamson’s adaptation. As a computer-generated effect, Aslan is impressively detailed, but when he opens his mouth and Liam Neeson’s voice comes out, he turns ever so slightly ridiculous, and it becomes obvious why Lewis was opposed to a live-action movie version of his book. Aslan’s triumph over the White Witch’s nefarious plans, the turning point of the story, comes off like a hurried sleight-of-hand trick rather than the iconic touchstone of Lewis’ allegory.
Blame Adamson’s treatment of the source material as a sacred text. When the director feels empowered to take the reins away from the book, he achieves magnificence. The clash of the two armies is more breathtaking in anticipation and initial rush than anything since Spartacus. The prologue, with bombs dropping on London and lonely children on train platforms, underpins the fantasy with needed real-world gravitas. But when Santa Claus suddenly shows up in Narnia to deliver weaponry to the children, he’s as out of place as Rudolph at the manger. Yeah, I know he’s in the book. That’s the problem. Sometimes Lewis, in movie form at least, needs to be saved from himself.