Winter Wonder

Full of thrills and chills, faithful `Narnia' is everything a fantasy fairy-tale should be.

Review A

December 09, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe plunges into an imaginative landscape as large as all creation - and never slackens its barreling pace or shrinks its panoramic scope.

As it moves from the Battle of Britain to an apocalyptic war between good and evil in the bizarre parallel world of Narnia, this movie has everything a first-rate fantasy should have, including sweep, color and clarity. It boasts some indelible performances, notably from Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie, the little girl who trailblazes Narnia's glacial wonderland, and Tilda Swinton, as Jadis, the White Witch. Jadis freezes that world into a winter without Christmas, executes its savior, Aslan the lion (the voice of Liam Neeson), and generally proves herself a demon of Lilith-like proportions.

Director Andrew Adamson and his screenwriters, Ann Peacock and the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who did HBO's terrific Peter Sellers biopic), convey their dual love for the C.S. Lewis novel and for moviemaking. They satisfy an audience's hunger for suspense and spectacle while heightening the impact of their heroes' ultimate powers: forgiveness and sacrifice.

There's no denying the Christian elements of the fable, which includes a timely resurrection - but why deny those elements, anyway? (Have they ever bothered readers of Dickens' Yuletide fables?) Adamson and his team, and for that matter, Lewis himself, present an unsentimental portrait of family values. They dramatize charitable, self-transcending qualities that should be valued more, not less, during wartime.

In a smart and frightening coup de theatre, Adamson and company emphasize that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a war story even before Lucy, her moody, untrustworthy brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes), her stalwart eldest sibling Peter (William Moseley), and her resolutely down-to-earth older sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) ever set foot in Narnia.

When Adamson depicts them dodging debris during the blitz and then boarding a train to the country at the behest of their mother (Judy McIntosh), the director cements our identification with them as displaced people. During a rainy-day game of hide-and-seek at their escape house, the rambling country estate of Professor Kirke (the ever-delightful Jim Broadbent), Lucy enters a wardrobe in an empty room. She makes her way through a forest of old fur coats, only to find herself in a forest of birch trees.

The tableau that greets Lucy there - an antique London street lamp standing tall against banks of Narnian snow - should bring smiles to Lewis fans. It's familiar in the right way, like a set piece in a folk tale. When Mr. Tumnus, a faun in a red muffler, makes furtive contact with Lucy, he's unfamiliar in the right way. In the person of actor James McAvoy (fitted with conical animal ears and computer-generated furry legs), he's younger and more transparent and emotionally needy than you'd expect from Lewis' written descriptions. He connects directly with the marvelously open and inquisitive personality that Henley breathes into Lucy. McAvoy plays Mr. Tumnus with such uncanny authority that when he kicks the frost off his limbs with a clatter of hooves, the exotic jolt of that sight and sound ignites jolly laughter.

The movie keeps the audience in a pleasurable grip. Adamson and his team suffuse it equally with wonder and with tension. Its old and new devices and technologies help the director make good on his go-for-broke instincts for drama and comedy, as he subtly reinforces or revamps Lewis' characters. More than ever, Lucy's initial push into Narnia expresses her need for hope amid despair. The other kids' doubt that she ever went there becomes a sign that they're not clicking as a parentless clan.

After Edmund bumbles into Narnia and falls under the spell of Swinton's White Witch, Jadis, the movie achieves an epic stature. Swinton brings the movie unforeseeable shivers of excitement. A virtuoso of manipulation, her Jadis quick-spots each weakness in her prey, then leaps on it from unexpected quarters. Swinton's towering control drips with icy beauty and even icier humor. She can be horrifyingly seductive.

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