My conflicted feelings about The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe keep nagging at me. What is it about the lavish film version of the C.S. Lewis fable — the only movie of the season to rival King Kong for the box-office crown — that keeps drawing crowds? The Christian right has claimed the film for its own, with an intensity to rival Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. But I'm unpersuaded that every child and parent who plunks down cash for tickets is digging for religious allegories. They're watching a story about the four Pevensie children — Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley, the feistiest cutie in the bunch) — whose mum hustles them out of World War II London, where German bombs are falling, to the safety of a country house. Some safety. An old wardrobe offers entry to the mythic Narnia, where animals talk and another war rages, bringing lessons about good and evil. In all seven Narnia books, Lewis did nothing to hide his devout Christianity. The religious symbols show up in the movie, too, minus the whippings that braveheart Mel piled on. Liam Neeson, in godlike voice, speaks the role of Aslan the great lion, who agrees to die for the sins of Edmund, and by extension the human race. When Aslan rises from the dead, the audience feels protected, especially from the devil, or in this case Jadis, the wicked witch played with much-needed bite by Tilda Swinton. The animated Aslan looks great onscreen, and when he finally roars and lunges at the witch, the film comes alive for the first time as elemental drama. It's then that I realized what I'd been missing: risk. Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek 2) can stage a battle scene that mixes up creatures, human and digital, with deft dazzle. But the outcome of the Disney version of Narnia is never in doubt. This PG-rated movie feels safe and constricted in a way the story never does on the page. It leaves out the deep magic of a good movie, or a good sermon: the feeling that something vital is at stake.
From The Archives Issue 355: October 29, 1981