Quite a few film critics got their knickers in a twist on the release of the big-screen outing The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian went as far as to urge all adult viewers to reach for a ‘sick bag’, her blog so tightly wound with resentment she can barely finish a sentence without spitting, bless her: does she have some dark associations with organised religion we’re not aware of? Having watched the film again last night, I think they’re missing the point.
While adults cringe and apologise for the Christian undertones, children continue to love the Narnia series, particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I did, as a child. And why? The film, cleverly, gives a hint of the answer by opening in the middle of an air-raid in London, the Pevensies scrambling to the bomb shelter in the garden, sirens blaring and glass shards flying. The next scene shows them being packed off as evacuees to the countryside, their father fighting in the army, their mother to remain alone in the crumbling city. They are sent to live in a country house belonging to Professor Kirk (played by Jim Broadbent with twinkly-eyed eccentricity), where the only familiarity they have left is the sometimes bruising sibling relationships they have with each other.
It’s at this point of displacement and loss that Lucy (Georgie Henley, in an adorable, gap-toothed performance) discovers the magic wardrobe opening into the land of Narnia. Initially scoffed at by her brothers and sister, first Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and then Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) find their way into Narnia too. The children find that in this magical land of talking animals and mythical creatures, it is their long-foretold destiny to defeat the White Witch with the help of Aslan, the lion, and rule as kings and queens in a castle by the sea.
Well, what child wouldn’t welcome a development like that? The film succeeds because it taps into the potency of Lewis’ fantasy: ordinary children stumbling into a place where they are recognised for more than who they are at present, where their arrival is anticipated and guided by destiny, where good and evil are clearly opposed and can be fought with swords and spells. Director Andrew Adamson makes good use of Aslan’s gravity and wisdom (Liam Neeson’s baritone particularly effective here) contrasted with Tilda Swinton’s cold, alien brutality. The film, as in the book, shows each Pevensie child overcoming their particular weaknesses and becoming strong and brave. Edmund’s development has always been the most interesting trajectory: Skandar Keynes plays him as troubled, resentful and weak, betraying his siblings ‘for sweeties’ then realising that mistakes must be paid for with selflessness and valour. But Lucy is the story’s heart – the innocent wonder with which she greets each new development in Narnia is effectively transmitted to the audience with long shots of sweeping vistas and a beautifully judged, moving soundtrack.
The last half hour of the film becomes larger in scale, the battle scenes familiar in style (one shot especially reminiscent of an identical one in The Two Towers), and the whole thing here becomes more predictable and homogenous. For me, the defining point of the film is the scene in which Lucy discovers the wood in the wardrobe for the first time, and meets Mr Tumnus the faun (sensitively played by James McAvoy), before being asked to tea and sardines on toast. The camera lingers on her awestruck expression, blinking snowflakes from her eyelashes, mumbling in joyous bewilderment ‘It’s an awfully big wardrobe!’ And here we find the real Narnia: a place where every displaced child can find a purpose and a home.