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Photograph by Phil Bray

My, What Big Ears You Have: Georgie Henley's Lucy shares a secret with James McAvoy's fawn in 'The Chronicles of Narnia.'

Lion Down

'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'—critter mayhem in a Christian land far, far away

By Richard von Busack

WILL The Chronicles of Narnia make as big a fiscal noise as The Lord of the Rings? It should do well. There are tons of people who will pay $9 to see a lion get crucified.

Before haggling over the details, note what the new franchise-to-be is missing: sex, in a word. And it was sex, partially, that gave that three-film epic its tensile strength: the hot glances between Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler (and between Sean Astin and Elijah Wood, one supposes).

The Chronicles of Narnia's biggest name is Tilda Swinton, gorgeously evil in a black-contact-lenses role as Jadis the White Witch. But that is only one grand performance. Each Lord of the Rings installment featured several.

Moreover, the Ring series was more morally complex. In Middle-earth, even goodness could turn on you—as, for example, when Cate Blanchett's Galadriel got a wicked shock off the cursed ring: she was so divine, she thought she was grounded.

Implied in Peter Jackson's trilogy was the idea of the terrible force of guilt and how corrosive it could be: it drove poor Gollum crazier than Peter Lorre.

But based as it is on the works of a tedious old proselytizing Christian such as C.S. Lewis, the Narnia series is pro-guilty conscience. Take sweeties from an evil queen, kill a lion. It's the law.

Narnia Nostalgia

I am an ex-child who loved the Narnia books. I even had a cat named Aslan, who sadly lacked the recuperative powers of his namesake. Still, book one of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, seemed like a slow starter.

Lucy goes to Narnia, stops for tea, falls asleep and has to return to convince her brothers and sister to come join her. They stall. Then two of them go back, having failed to convince their elders.

Even as a child, I realized I didn't have an eternity to live and that the show really ought to get on the road. It seemed all the more slowpoke later when reading The Lord of the Rings, which drops you into Middle-earth like a paratrooper. Here's your map—in you go.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tries to start with a grabber—a poorly animated sequence about the blitz in World War II, explaining why the four children are relocated to the country away from the bombardment.

A good 20 minutes go by until the characters are where they need to be, all four of them. The magic world of Narnia is under the grip of eternal winter, by command of a royal White Witch. Queen Jadis is frosty with evil: she's crowned with a coronet of ice and has pale frost-bitten eyelashes. Swinton is a slender woman, and so she's costumed in a conical brace, like the broad end of a funnel, to make her look strong around the shoulders.

Of all things, Jadis fears the "sons of Adam and daughters of Eve" the most. Using hot chocolate and candy, she buys off young Edmund (Skander Keynes). Director Andrew Adamson gives no explanation for why he might be so susceptible. With rationing in World War II making candy and chocolate scarce, it would be tempting to sell all for Turkish delight.

Thus the boy betrays his sister's friend Mr. Tumnus the Faun (James McAvoy, made up to look a little like Matthew Barney in Cremaster 4). Edmond is kidnapped, but the other three children have a helpful pair of guardians: talking Cockney beavers. (Mr. Beaver is voiced by the usually scary Ray Winstone.)

Trailer-Park Amazon

There are a few unmixed pleasures in The Chronicles of Narnia. Swinton, who looks like a trailer-park Amazon in Broken Flowers, is even more stern and suffused with cold power here.

She is especially frightening in her last guise. The narrow corners of Jadis' eyes are daubed with blood-red war paint as she heads off to battle in a war chariot drawn by polar bears.

The sequence of the children trooping into the depths of a long-forgotten wardrobe, the fur coats around them yielding to a snowy pine forest, raises a stir of childish delight. All other armoires ever since have seemed so disappointing.

Another reliable treat is the performance by Georgie Henley as Lucy, the littlest girl in the Pevensie family. She is an unaffected child actor—one of those little girls who show how graceful they can be by never worrying if they're cute or not.

But for me, the sight of doughty Mr. Beaver in a little suit of chain mail is the chief pleasure. Beaver wins extra points for referring to Aslan as "the top geezer." It's an old-time Disney pleasure to see the homely chaffing between him and Mrs. Beaver (as opposed to the too-modern scrimmage of chimerical creatures at the end).

Beavers are possibly earth's most underrated animal. Have you seen the Canadian documentary Beavers in IMAX? It's so cute it makes March of the Penguins look like a pile of puke, to steal a line from that ol' glasswipe Moe Szyslak.

Plotwise, the film is simple and uninflected; it's a long march to join Aslan the Lion (voiced by Liam Neeson), who leads the resistance against the witch and her 100-year-long winter. Under Aslan's example, Peter (William Moseley), the eldest, gets the strength to be a king.

The final battle is a huge Lord of the Rings-style Götterdämmerung. But unlike Jackson, director Adamson doesn't temper the violence with unexpected scope and humor. Who would have thought the director of the Shrek series could make something so essentially unfunny?

True, this battle features the highest grade of computer animation. It is fought underneath a sky as clear and turquoise-blue as a New Mexico noon. No sloppy rush-work animation is hiding under half-light.

But as the tigers leap on leopards, and minotaurs on centaurs, it all becomes exhausting and downright painful: creatures dying to establish the primacy of man.

Having to explain why it's especially unedifying to watch an animal suffer is fairly lunatic, but lunacy is the frequent movie watcher's lot.

There is a terrible self-preserving faculty in humanity that kicks in when witnessing someone else being injured. We solace ourselves with a selfish thought: If a human being is hurt, he or she must have done something to deserve it. (Thus the popularity of the expression "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time." If "he" was in the wrong place where he didn't belong, "I" was in the right place, because I'm a smarter and better person.)

When an animal is injured or hurt before our eyes, one can't reach for this irrational sense of justice. Creatures that live in an eternal present must suffer so much worse than humans. We humans can conceive of the pain coming to an end or look for a remedy or escape. And the realistically animated animals, sentient as they are, look like ordinary unsentient animals.

From Paganism to Christianity

The Chronicles of Narnia goes south when Aslan the lion king is taken away for mistreatment by the White Witch. Here the epic's diverting animalistic paganism leads to Christian lore—a disappointment now as it was for me 40 years ago.

And it is hardly buried Christianity that is flaunted here; Aslan's ordeal and rise, the establishment of Peter (get it?) as his representative, the healing bloodlike fluid in a heart-shaped glass—even Sunday school dropouts can't fail to get the picture.

Adam Gopnik wrote about this metaphor of Aslan as Jesus in his recent piece on Lewis in The New Yorker. Gopnik argued that a humble donkey would be a better symbol for Jesus. In such an animal story, the lowest of the animal "lowerarchy" (to use a Lewis word) can triumph over the kings of this world.

Lewis was a devout Anglican, and in his view the church was intertwined with the state. In Narnia, Aslan represents the righteousness of England and the righteousness of Jesus made one. The lion is a symbol that is attractive to those Christians—especially evangelical conservatives—who would rather see their church as a conquering, avenging faith than as a humble long-suffering one.

Watching The Chronicles of Narnia, those who prefer to keep religion out of their escapism might recall Kurt Kasznar's line from Casino Royale: "I didn't come here to be devoured by symbols of imperialism."

Oddly, though, Aslan—being the Resurrection and the Lion—is a symbol that works onscreen better than Gopnik could have anticipated.

Golden-maned and sad-faced, he is led off to bear the weight of Edmund's sins. It's like a Renaissance painting: Jesus as the most beautiful creature alive, led off to be mistreated by the foulest monsters. And waiting for Aslan at the altar are a menagerie of ogres, cyclopses and vampires, worthy of Goya's Black Paintings.

But then the symbol breaks down under the weight of cinematic realism. When the great lion is bound and humiliated, what we're seeing is not quite Jesus and not quite the mystical lion king Aslan.

It's too literal: What we're really seeing is an animal being mistreated. Although the lion is a computerized simulacrum, although the moral lesson is supposed to be edifying, it's hard not to come out of The Chronicles of Narnia without a sense of bitterness. The barbarism in a supposedly gentle faith always seems to reveal itself under the harsh light of a film projector.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (PG; 140 min.), directed by Andrew Adamson, written by Ann Peacock, Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the book by C.S. Lewis, photographed by Donald McAlpine and starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes and Tilda Swinton, plays valleywide.

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Web extra to the December 7-13, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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