Aslan is On the Move   

"The Chronicles of Narnia" casts a spell to thaw the box office's 100-Year Winter

"This is an empty world," came the Witch's voice. "This is Nothing."

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from which direction it was
coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.

The blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn't come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; the next moment, a thousand-thousand points of light leaped out.

[When] you saw the Singer himself, you forgot everything else. It was a Lion. Huge, shaggy and bright, it stood facing the risen sun. The Lion was pacing to and fro and singing his song. As he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. When you listened to the song you heard the things he was making up; when you looked round you, you saw them.

Every drop of blood tingled in the children's bodies, and the deepest, wildest, voice they had ever heard was saying, "Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake."

If Narnia's creation myth, as described in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" prequel "The Magician's Nephew," evokes another fairly well-known piece of literature -- i.e., the opening "Let there be light" paragraph of the Bible -- it's not inadvertent. C.S. Lewis, author of the 1950s-penned, seven-book "Chronicles of Narnia" series, was also highly regarded for his deeply philosophical writings on Christianity.

The parallels, however, are generally subtle enough that if you were to ask any seven-to-12-year-old fan of the books about Aslan the Lion being a Christ figure, they would just look at you sideways. To most readers, children and adult alike, "The Chronicles of Narnia" are fantastical tales of adventure set in a wondrous world of talking animals and imaginary creatures -- not a thinly-disguised Sunday School lesson by any means.

In bringing "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to the bigscreen, director Andrew Adamson, helming his first live-action feature after the animated "Shrek" comedies, and producer Mark Johnson ("The Notebook," "A Little Princess") focused on the story more than any spiritual subtext. "We were just faithful to the book. So if that's significant to you as a reader of the book, it will be significant to you as a viewer of the movie," says Johnson. Those not looking for religious metaphors will simply experience "a wonderful story with extremely positive values that apply to all of us."

"Besides," adds Adamson wryly, "I was talking to one of the actors about the references to Christ, and he said, 'I don't know -- does Christ ever rip someone's throat out at the end of the story?'"

For those who haven't read the book, that's only a spoiler if you believe there's a possibility Evil will triumph over Good in a Disney-produced Christmastime family film. And, rest assured, such a visceral description is only to be found in hyperbolic quips -- it's doubtful that either Lewis' estate or the MPAA would greenlight a "When Animals Attack" version of Aslan.

There are a couple of other tomes to which the movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is being compared -- namely, "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." While the connections are tenuous -- the mythological beasts and epic battles of the former meet the plucky children rising to face magical dangers of the latter -- who could ask for better PR than to be likened to the most popular tales in history?

"We really are in many ways the confluence of so much of what's in both of those movies," acknowledges Johnson. "If you liked one of them, you'd be hard-pressed not to like ours. At the same time, I really do think that ours is its own animal." Pun no doubt intended.

Adamson was loath to alter the characters from Lewis' vision. Having loved the books as a boy, he was determined to make a faithful adaptation. "I was actually a little reluctant at first to take it on, partly because I knew it would be a very complex and intensive film to make, and partly because I was worried that whoever was involved in it would want to contemporize it in a way that wasn't faithful and true to the books," he says. "And the books had been such an important part of my childhood that I had to stay true to them. So when I finally agreed to take a meeting, I sort of expected it to go badly, because I went in saying, 'Well, look, here's what I would want to do. I'd want to stay in the period of World War II, and -- sure, flesh out the characters and make it a lot more three-dimensional -- but I'd want to keep pretty closely and really stay to the beats of the plot and the book.' And, strangely enough, everyone just kept nodding, all the way through to the C.S. Lewis estate. So I found myself going, 'Okay, now I have to do it!'" he laughs.

"The way I approached it was to be true to my memory and imagination as a child. C.S. Lewis wrote in such a way as to spur the imagination without filling in a lot of detail. He would say things in the book like, 'I'm not going to tell you how bad this next part was, or your parents won't let you read the book.' And when you're a kid, you just go, 'Wow, that's bad!' And you fill in all those gaps. And so I wanted the movie to be true to how I remembered all those things."

"Lewis gives you just enough of Narnia and certain creatures that you can sort of complete them in your own mind," Johnson agrees. "So it really lets you participate. We felt the obligation to get it right and be true to the underlying material; at the same time, it is a movie, and there are a couple of things we've invented. But I don't think that anybody is going to feel that we've in any way been unfaithful or denied them any kind of significant part or character that's in the book."

What is it about "The Chronicles of Narnia" that has incited such devotion from fans? "I asked myself, 'Why are the books in general so universally appealing?'" says Adamson. "And I think it's largely because they're very empowering for children. The children are victims in World War II. They're disenfranchised and fragmented as a family. They go into Narnia; they deal with issues of betrayal and forgiveness; and ultimately, they become the Kings and Queens that solve this problem in Narnia. So they go from being children that are shipped off to the country to the people of most import in this other world. And I think that's such a great thing as a kid to think, 'You mean I could just, like, step through a wardrobe and become a king?'"

The tale begins in World War II-era England, when the four Pevensie children -- Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy -- are sent away from air raid-besieged London to live in the country with their uncle (and "a housekeeper called Mrs. Macready and three servants; their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much," as Lewis noted in his trademark dry humor.) While playing hide-and-seek one rainy day, the youngest sibling, Lucy (Georgie Henley), conceals herself in a cabinet that turns out to have no back to it. It's the original wardrobe malfunction. As Lucy wanders further and further into the mysterious closet, tree branches brush against her arms and snow crunches under her feet, and she soon finds herself in the wintry landscape of another world -- namely, Narnia.

"Lucy is brave and trusting. She's also very decisive and she always tries to do the right thing," says 10-year-old Henley, who was only eight during filming, of her character. "When Lucy first goes into Narnia, she's amazed because it is so beautiful and magical." Some of that amazement might also be due to the fact that the first person she encounters is Mr. Tumnus the Faun (James McAvoy), a half-man, half-goat. While Lucy might have been shocked, Georgie took it all in stride. "It wasn't all that strange working with magical creatures because I knew that underneath the make-up, prosthetics and costumes they were ordinary lovely people! I loved doing my scenes with Mr. Tumnus because James McAvoy is a great guy to work with and we had loads of fun."

Some of the animals, however, were entirely CGI creations ("photo-real animals that I defy you to tell me they're not real animals," challenges Johnson) -- and that presented a bit more of an acting challenge. "It was sometimes hard to be emotional over Aslan when he was often just a piece of green tape on a stick!" laughs Henley. "But since Andrew usually did the voice and all four kids were very close to Andrew it was easier to realize Aslan's character and emotions." (Adamson's stint as Aslan was strictly behind-the-scenes; Liam Neeson was chosen to voice the benevolent King of the Animals. "Liam's voice has a great deal of warmth and compassion, and also strength," says Adamson, apparently bearing no grudges that his soft-spoken New Zealand accent was never going to make the final cut.)

Tension begins to ratchet up when Lucy's bratty brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) also discovers Narnia -- but instead of meeting a friendly faun, he encounters the evil Jadis (Tilda Swinton), the White Witch who has cursed Narnia with a 100-year winter. The Witch is able to manipulate Edmund's weaknesses, to the detriment of all. "Edmund is the outcast of the family," explains Keynes. "He betrays his brothers and sisters [for promises made] to him by the White Witch. When he realizes what a mistake he's made, he seeks redemption. But at first, he's a very spiteful, mean person who torments the adorable young Lucy," he adds with an evil chuckle. Keynes seems to prefer his darker persona: "The hard bit was when I had to go nice, and all smiley and happy. It was more fun shouting at everyone," he intones with the mischievous glint that won him the role.

A mere glance from the imperious White Witch understandably terrifies the Pevensies, and Adamson went to great lengths to ensure that tension would be felt onscreen. "Andrew had told Tilda not to socialize with me, and keep a distance. I only saw the professional, working Tilda, and I never saw the fun side to her. And it was very confusing trying to work out what was going on, because I'd occasionally on set see her trying to have conversations but Andrew was shooting her looks. At first, I was wondering, 'Is this person actually like the White Witch all the time?' But as soon as she could open up, she was this lovely, warm person."

In creating her character, says Swinton, "It occurred to me that children aren't really that frightened by anger; in many ways, I think anger is rather reassuring for them, since they get angry themselves very often. But the thing that they really, really find alienating is coldness." She says the word "coldness" with a frost in her voice that forms icicles on the last syllable. "And so we thought a lot about coldness. She is, after all, the Ice Queen of all Ice Queens."

So who would win in a fight -- Jadis or "Lord of the Rings'" Galadriel?

"I don't know, except they always say the devil has the best lines, so I would imagine Jadis is in with a chance."

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Starring Tilda Swinton, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell and James McAvoy. Directed by Andrew Adamson. Written by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Produced by Mark Johnson. A Buena Vista release. Opens Dec. 9.

© Christine James - all rights reserved.

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