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Friday, March 24, 2006

Children's classic goes by the book

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Andrew Adamson
Running time: 140 minutes
Language: Enghlish
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Childhood classics brought to the screen in one's adulthood can arouse feelings of possessiveness, resentment and suspicion. Those cherished stories, which used to belong solely to you and your imagination, are now passed through the hands of countless studio executives, marketers and an exclusive team of trendy filmmakers. What if they get it wrong? And what if they get it right? The whole ordeal seems agonizing either way.

News photo
"Aslan the Lion" holds court in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." (C) DISNEY ENTERPRISESINC. AND WALDEN MEDIA LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

But in the case of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," they get it so smack-on-the-nail, seamlessly right, that you just sink into the seat, broken and humbled. Everything about the movie seems handcrafted with loving care, chosen with an expert eye for detail and a true appreciation of the original novels penned by C.S. Lewis. Nowhere is this more the case than in the casting of the four main characters, the Pevensie children, who are played by actors whose names are now destined to go up on the same marquee of fame as the Harry Potter trio, particularly 9-year-old newcomer Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy, the youngest of the siblings.

Set in wartime England, "Narnia Chronicles" opens with the children sent from their home in London to their uncle's house in the country to escape the nightly air raids. Lucy is adorable, though never in an obvious way: she's a pensive, introverted girl holding a small universe of unspoken thoughts just behind her large, clear eyes. Lucy is also the most active and spirited of the siblings; she lives by her own rules and is less concerned with convention than her older sister, Susan (Anna Popplewell), or brother Peter (William Moseley), who are both in their early teens. She's also far less likely to succumb to temptation than her brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes), whose greediness and sweet tooth will land him in trouble. So it seems appropriate that she, the wisest but most innocent of the four, should one day wander into a wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek and discover the fantastical world of Narnia on the other side.

Narnia is inhabited by talking fauns and beavers, cowering under the dictatorial rule of the White Witch (cult British thesp Tilda Swinton, in her strongest role to date) who has decreed that the kingdom be trapped in a perpetual winter. ("It's always winter, but never Christmas!" explains a faun to Lucy.) But the Pevensies are assured that, as "Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve," they have the power to deliver Narnia from the White Witch and restore the just "Aslan the Lion" (voiced by Liam Neeson) to his rightful throne.

The children prepare themselves for battle, but their efforts are frequently foiled by Edmund, who, despite his best intentions, ends up being seduced by the agents of the White Witch with promises of his favorite sweet, Turkish Delight. Keynes as Edmund is also wonderful to watch, his perky, spunky little face a mirror for all the desires swirling in his mind -- which most often have to do with grabbing at some forbidden treat.

Edmund, however, is also capable of acts of great bravery; before they left London he had saved their father's portrait from being destroyed in a bombing raid. Aslan shows understanding and compassion for Edmund, for the Good Lion expected a Son of Adam to be both weak and strong, a mass of conflicting emotions. A famed scholar of Christianity, C.S. Lewis may have had a boy exactly like Keynes in mind when he first created Edmund's character, but as literature critics have pointed out, it's clear that he also intended Edmund to represent the Judas to Aslan's Jesus -- the fallen disciple who was also the most secretly loved.

Christian subtexts aside, in the Narnia books Lewis never let his religious convictions overwhelm his talent for storytelling and love of adventure. One of the most enthralling things about the novels were their intricate descriptions of an alternative world, the passages so vivid that you could actually feel the texture of the fur coats hanging in the wardrobe that the children brushed against as they passed into Narnia, and actually taste the addictive deliciousness of the White Witch's Turkish Delights. All of that is re-created on-screen by director Andrew Adamson ("Shrek"), who displays a deep sensitivity for the bygone World War II era, and an impressive skill at contrasting the comfortable, worn-out hues of the Uncle's house with the blinding white world of Narnia.

In fact, the only flaw in the movie is the fact that the whole package is so efficiently assembled that there's no vacant niche left for even a sliver of personal, individual interpretation. Children will see the contents of the book re-created flawlessly, or worse (and far more likely) they'll skip the reading and go straight to the multiplex.

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