If they held Sunday school at Hogwarts, that's where you might find the Narnia kids. They are no strangers to magic and sorcery, but in contrast to the Rowling brood, they are small potatoes in a universal scrap between deities, and the stakes are more desperately felt. The terms of the fight are also dirtier. The creator of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, had no modernist qualms about exposing the very young to danger in his writings - the code of Narnia is a Crusader's code, and any son of Adam or daughter of Eve who is old enough to heft a blade can join the fight, and become fair game. On page five of the first book in the series of seven, the precocious toddler Lucy Pevensie opens the first doorway to danger - an imposing, monolithic wardrobe in an unexplored section of her new country home, where she and her siblings have been shuttled off after a Nazi air-raid. She leaps through the doors with a child's thoughtless courage and shuts them behind her. Pushing forward into the heavy coats, she is unexpectedly touched by the icy finger of a fir tree. The coats draping over her face are now, curiously, touched with powdered snow. She steps on through, into a clearing surrounded by lovely, thick woods, and for a minute it looks as though she might turn back into the wardrobe, but someone with secrets is already staring at her from just beyond the light of the lamppost.
Lucy is brought to amazing life by a pocket-sized actress named Georgie Henley, who must surely be the greatest child find since Drew Barrymore. She is inescapably bound for stardom. Her introductory meeting in Narnia is with a Faun - half billy-goat, half shirtless boy-band member - and she regards his frightening hooves and chilly stubble with nothing but warmth and kindness. Her wide, searching eyes are imminently trusting - they know nothing of the betrayal and the calumny that are commonplace in Narnia's wars of attrition. How could they, after all? The Faun leads her back to his private hovel and after a tune and some idle chit-chat - he mistakenly believes that she comes from city of War Drobe in the land of Spare Oom - he blurts out a tearful, alarming confession. He intends to kidnap her and turn her over to his slaver, The White Witch. Oh, the look on her face! It's a moment of agony that even critics with hearts full of crushed ice will be moved by. There are very few scenes in the entire Narnia canon that are as throat-grabbing; one possible candidate exists all the way at the other end of the series, in book seven, when we learn the shocking fate of Lucy's sister, Susan. But that's a million miles away. Here and now, in Andrew Adamson's film, Susan is not quite a central player. She's principally a doting, pensive mother-figure to her siblings and a steady-headed warrior, played with verve by a mushroom-faced young actress named Anna Popplewell.
The male siblings of the Pevensie clan are less compelling than the women in this telling of the tale, and also somewhat of a distracting mismatch in the looks category. The eldest brother, Peter (William Moseley) has a face so blemish-free and sparkle-fresh that it was obviously decided by some casting agent that he was simply too much of a find to pass up, actor or no. The dark-haired brother, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) has, in contrast, the face of a brooding art student. When his little sister bounds out of the wardrobe talking jibberish about a man-goat and a snow world, he steps into the wardrobe himself to prove her wrong, and is almost instantaneously run over by the mushing sledge of Jadis, The White Witch, and her cigar-store gnome companion. There's a curious law of gravity in Narnia that causes everything to move towards the children. Once they step out of the portal, the action sweeps them up. It's a big world, but no travel is necessary to get where they need to be - they're already where the action is. This theme is also evident in the way that titles are easily conferred on them and introductions, when they meet a new creature, are almost never necessary. Nothing moves a story along like having everyone's reputation precede them.
Jadis eases Edmund up onto her coach and offers him Turkish Delight, which he greedily accepts. Edmund will quickly become, like the fallen Faun, a captive of this viperous witch, and will also be revealed as an even bigger Judas, dropping dime on others for more or less nothing - "for sweeties." As The White Witch, Tilda Swinton is black poison. Sporting opaque, marble eyes and a neck that whips her head round at the first scent of trouble, she has as much of a restless animal spirit as any other creature in the film's menagerie. What we learn about her - both in the book as well as the film - isn't much, but it's known that she is engaged in a bitter turf war with the Godhead of the series, a spirit called Aslan who appears as a cuddly Lion King in this installment, but will return as a lamb in later entries.
Much ado has been made about the man-hours put into creating Aslan as a believable, massive jungle beast with a bristling mane. The results on the screen are impressive, and they may be almost photo perfect, but somehow the eye isn't quite fooled. Perhaps it's the humans around him that are too perfect - they only lay hands on the big cat carefully and strategically, and when they walk beside him, his girth has no gravity. You would expect a real lion to feel his way forward and sideways - to brush up against, to nuzzle, and to butt with the nose a bit. This lion keeps his paws to himself. On the other hand, the animal warriors who muster and line up for the large, sprawling battle scenes do visual justice to the book, and then some. Along with the flourish of Arthurian pennants and medieval armory, there's a very Roman quality of animal misuse and out-of-habitat misappropriation in the Narnia books that is captured smashingly here - at one point in the film we see a pair of miserable polar bears pulling a rickshaw across a sunny plain.
Too much ink has already been spilled on the one angle of Narnia that is surest to deflate your spirit - the spiritual angle. The well of debate is so poisoned in America today where these kinds of subjects are concerned that most people of good will would prefer to not be draftees on either side. It's certainly a fact that the Narnia books were, for C.S. Lewis, a stout defense of Christian virtues against competing virtues. Like many adult converts to religion, Lewis had the constitution of a teetotaller and could hardly resist proselytizing his faith, but he was also hardly an intellectual or imaginative slouch. For the record, he dismissed most dogmatic interpretations of the Narnia series as pure "moonshine." His books are zig-zagged and cut-through with little byways and cul de sacs where religion and fantasy and science must meet and acknowledge each others' existence. In The Silver Chair, a later Narnia book, the Christian bible is explicitly compared and contrasted to works of fantasy, and the examination is welcomed. Also, in book one - and in this film - the den of the Faun contains a book provocatively titled Is Man a Myth? There's much more here than mere Christianity.
Narnia has made it to the screen almost completely intact. It's a fate that will, ironically, probably not be visited on Philip Pullman's popular His Dark Materials trilogy - a project currently moving into production that was intended as an answer to Narnia. At some point down the line, if the Narnia film series continues, note by note renditions will become stale. But because Lewis was ungenerous with details in his writings and not inclined to linger on the visual implications of the man-imals and other creations he dreamed up, this film cannot be faulted for giving us a dogmatically faithful adaptation. It can be faulted for stretching some of the battle sequences into tedium for no other purpose under the sun than having some bragging rights against the nerds over at the Lord of the Rings shop. It can also be faulted for not doing enough to shore up some of the book's more wobbly plotlines, including the laborious subplot regarding the beavers, which will make you wish for roadkill. For some reason, the film is less persuasive in most of the scenes where animals converse with each other than in the scenes where they interact only with humans. The idea of beavers chatting up beavers or hippos shooting the breeze with storks or anything along those lines just doesn't quite make it across the blood-brain barrier and into the believability cortex. It's just too much. It saps strength from the human drama. To make the future films of the series more human-centric may be challenging, but it would go a long way toward helping to retain the passing grade earned on this first effort.