Roger Ebert’s Take on Narnia

I may not always agree with Roger Ebert’s film reviews, but over the years I’ve found him to be consistent and relatively fair. Check out what he says about Narnia. Note Ebert’s matter-of-fact assertion that Aslan dies for Edmund’s sin, “just as Christ died for ours.”

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
‘Narnia’ yarn mixes magic and myth

Release Date: 2005

Ebert Rating:

Dec 8, 2005

C. S. Lewis, who wrote the  Narnia books, and  J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the Ring
trilogy, were friends who taught at Oxford at the same time, were
pipe-smokers, drank in the same pub, took Christianity seriously, but
although Lewis loved Tolkein’s universe, the affection was not
returned. Well, no wonder. When you’ve created your own universe, how
do you feel when, in the words of a poem by e. e. cummings:: “Listen:
there’s a hell/of a good universe next door; let’s go.”

Tolkien’s universe was in
unspecified Middle Earth, but Lewis’ really was next door. In the
opening scenes of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and
the Wardrobe,” two brothers and two sisters from the Pevensie family
are evacuated from London and sent to live in a vast country house
where they will be safe from the nightly Nazi air raids. Playing
hide-and-seek, Lucy, the youngest, ventures into a wardrobe that opens
directly onto a snowy landscape where before long Mr. Tumnus is
explaining to her that he is a faun.

Fauns, like leprechauns, are
creatures in the public domain, unlike Hobbits, who are under
copyright. There are mythological creatures in Narnia, but most of the
speaking roles go to humans like the White Witch (if indeed she is
human) and animals who would be right at home in the zoo (if indeed
they are animals). The kids are from a tradition which requires that
British children be polite and well-spoken, no doubt because Lewis
preferred them that way. What is remarkable is that this bookish
bachelor who did not marry until he was nearly 60 would create four
children so filled with life and pluck.

That’s the charm of the Narnia
stories: They contain magic and myth, but their mysteries are resolved
not by the kinds of rabbits that Tolkien pulls out of his hat, but by
the determination and resolve of the Pevensie kids — who have a good
deal of help, to be sure, from Aslan the Lion. For those who read the
Lewis books as a Christian parable, Aslan fills the role of Christ
because he is resurrected from the dead. I don’t know if that makes the
White Witch into Satan, but Tilda Swinton plays the role as if she has
not ruled out the possibility.

The adventures that Lucy has in
Narnia, at first by herself, then with her brother Edmund and finally
with the older Peter and Susan, are the sorts of things that might
happen in any British forest, always assuming fauns, lions and witches
can be found there, as I am sure they can. Only toward the end of this
film do the special effects ramp up into spectacular extravaganzas that
might have caused Lewis to snap his pipe stem.

It is the witch who has kept
Narnia in frigid cold for a century, no doubt because she is descended
from Aberdeen landladies. Under the rules, Tumnus (James McAvoy) is
supposed to deliver Lucy (Georgie Henley) to the witch forthwith, but
fauns are not heavy hitters, and he takes mercy. Lucy returns to the
country house and pops out of the wardrobe, where no time at all has
passed and no one will believe her story. It is only after Edmund
(Skandar Keynes) follows her into the wardrobe that evening that her
breathless reports are taken seriously. Edmund is gob-smacked by the
White Witch, who proposes to make him a prince.

Peter (William Moseley) and
Susan (Anna Popplewell) believe Lucy and Edmund, and soon all four
children are back in Narnia. They meet the first of the movie’s
CGI-generated characters, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (voices by Ray Winstone
and Dawn French), who invite them into their home, which is
delightfully cozy for being made of largish sticks. The Beavers explain
the Narnian situation to them, just before an attack by computerized
wolves whose dripping fangs reach hungrily through the twigs.

Edmund by now has gone off on
his own and gotten himself taken hostage, and the Beavers hold out hope
that perhaps the legendary Aslan (voice by Liam Neeson) can save him.
This involves Aslan dying for Edmund’s sins, much as Christ died for
ours. Aslan’s eventual resurrection leads into an apocalyptic climax
that may be inspired by Revelation. Since there are six more books in
the Narnia chronicles, however, we reach the end of the movie while
still far from the Last Days.

These events, fantastical as
they sound, take place on a more human, or at least more earthly, scale
than those in “Lord of the Rings.” The personalities and character
traits of the children have something to do with the outcome, which is
not being decided by wizards on another level of reality but will be
duked out right here in Narnia. That the battle owes something to
Lewis’ thoughts about the first two world wars is likely, although
nothing in Narnia is as horrible as the trench warfare of the first or
the Nazis of the second.

The film has been directed by
Andrew Adamson, who directed both of the “Shrek” movies and supervised
the special effects on both of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman” movies. He
knows his way around both comedy and action, and here combines them in
a way that makes Narnia a charming place with fearsome interludes. We
suspect that the Beavers are living on temporary reprieve and that
wolves have dined on their relatives, but this is not the kind of movie
where you bring up things like that.

C.S. Lewis famously said he
never wanted the Narnia books to be filmed because he feared the
animals would “turn into buffoonery or nightmare.” But he said that in
1959, when he might have been thinking of a man wearing a lion suit, or

The effects in this movie are
so skillful that the animals look about as real as any of the other
characters, and the critic Emanuel Levy explains the secret: “Aslan
speaks in a natural, organic manner (which meant mapping the movement
of his speech unto the whole musculature of the animal, not just his
mouth).” Aslan is neither as frankly animated as the Lion King or as
real as the cheetah in “Duma,” but halfway in between, as if an animal
were inhabited by an archbishop.

This is a film situated
precisely on the dividing line between traditional family entertainment
and the newer action-oriented family films. It is charming and scary in
about equal measure, and confident for the first two acts that it can
be wonderful without having to hammer us into enjoying it, or else.
Then it starts hammering. Some of the scenes toward the end push the
edge of the PG envelope, and like the “Harry Potter” series, the Narnia
stories may eventually tilt over into R. But it’s remarkable, isn’t it,
that the Brits have produced Narnia, the Ring, Hogwarts, Gormenghast,
James Bond, Alice and Pooh, and what have we produced for them in
return? I was going to say “the cuckoo clock,” but for that you would
require a three-way Google of Italy, Switzerland and Harry Lime.

Cast & Credits

White Witch: Tilda Swinton
Lucy Pevensie: Georgie Henley
Edmund Pevensie: Skandar Keynes
Peter Pevensie: William Moseley
Susan Pevensie: Anna Popplewell

And the voices of:
Aslan: Liam Neeson
Mr. Beaver: Ray Winstone
Mrs. Beaver: Dawn French
Mr. Fox: Rupert Everett

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