The Lion Sting
Classic Children’s Fantasy novel not so Classic
Don’t be cynical. Think not that Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings have raked in a great deal of money and some enterprising producer now wants to strip-mine another literary fantasy franchise. Instead, look at The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe this way—finally, technology has caught up with C.S. Lewis’ imagination, and now a classic story containing talking animals and vast fantasy landscapes can receive the cinematic visualization it deserves. That’s good news, right? Unfortunately, when gussied up with modern effects the original story shows its age terribly. Who knew Narnia had a sell-by date?
A refresher on the story, for those well beyond the age of book reports: Four children, exiled to a gloomy country estate during the Blitz, discover a wardrobe that serves as mystic portal to the snow-covered land of Narnia. It’s been permanent winter since the White Witch (Tilda Swinton, with a tangle of dreadlocks the envy of any Phishhead and a gown made by David Byrne’s Big Suit tailor) ascended to the throne. She’s got designs on these “two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve,” as they’re mentioned in prophecy, the ones who can end her reign and bring spring to Narnia again. Luckily, the children have allies such as the noble lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), who has assembled an army for the heralded children to lead to victory. With typical British modesty the kids can’t quite believe they’re destined to be Narnia’s salvation, but slowly they warm to their roles as predestined liberators of the magic kingdom.
The movie’s flaws don’t lie with its cast. Young Lucy (Georgie Henley) is a standout—bearing a pug-nosed, precocious resemblance to the Miracle on 34th Street-era Natalie Wood, her tears are real and her delight is palpable. Also good is Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the cynical second son-turned-Judas figure who sells out his siblings for a taste of Turkish Delight, and Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), the merry-eyed faun. Every creature met is voiced delightfully and unobtrusively by British actors small (Dawn French and Ray Winstone) and large (Neeson). Older children Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley), while looking the part as perfectly as the younger two, are interchangeably sensible and not very interesting. And while the nonhumans are fun to listen to, their rubbery and shabbily animated digital bodies convince no one. The climactic battle sequence—with cheetahs, centaurs, and phoenixes on one side and minotaurs, polar bears, and ogres on the other—looks silly and jumbled, a mixed-metaphor spectacle just this side of a Siegfried and Roy show. (More pragmatically, the movie’s most egregious flaw is its running time. No movie for young children—and their inelastic bladders—should last 2 hours and 20 minutes.)
Narnia’s one stab at brilliance is the decision to begin the tale not where Lewis did, upon the children’s arrival at the country house, but instead inside the cockpit of a German bomber, where grotesquely masked pilots grunt ominous Teutonic commands and rain heavy bombs down on the London suburb where the Pevensie family lives. The panicked children rouse from sleep and scramble to the outdoor air-raid shelter amid breaking glass and pounding explosions, where it’s obvious the shelter’s tight space and soundproof door echoes the magic wardrobe and its power to create a safe space free from the trauma of war. But that’s the last of that idea, as the rest of the movie disappointingly plays very carefully close to the original text, as if under the hovering eye of a flock of estate lawyers, rather than take the opportunity to glaze that richer layer of meaning over the original fantasy.
The unfulfilled promise of that one detour from orthodoxy only sharpens the glaring limitations of the original story. With endless breaks for tea and debates about whether one must pack jam whilst fleeing, with boys at the front and girls left behind to offer care and sympathy, the entire affair is rooted in a distant tail-of-the-British Empire past, too measured and polite to be a soaring epic for American audiences. The threats are significant and the children’s trials real, but nowhere is there the spark of wonder or the gripping thrill of the hero’s quest. What small stink has been made about the movie as alleged Christian allegory is overshadowed by the deeper disappointment that it’s a spinning bit of monodimensional fluff masquerading as a rich and multilayered masterpiece. How sad to discover this classic children’s story may not be as timeless as it feels—and how doubly sad to realize that after Industrial Light and Magic already cashed its check.