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Lions and witches and Santa, Oh My!

by Glen Baity

Denis Leary has a great bit about the time one of his kids ruined a new VCR by placing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich inside it.

He can just imagine how it went down, he says. One of the kids was walking past the VCR with a paw full of PB & J, when they stopped, slowly looked at the VCR, looked back at the sandwich, and realized that by placing the sandwich into the VCR, they’d be able to watch The Peanut Butter and Jelly Movie!

For some reason I thought of this bit after watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’ll get to that.

As someone who took some heat for an admittedly generous review of Revenge of the Sith, let me preface all of this by saying that the Star Wars effect certainly applies here. If you have a long-standing affection for Narnia, if you were raised on it as so many people were, I imagine you’ll find in the new film version not at all hard to love. You’ve got a friend in me ‘— I understand completely.

I wasn’t raised on CS Lewis’ stories, and I’ll grant you that the film is a children’s movie through and through. On that level, it succeeds: kids will love Narnia; adults raised on the stories will find director Andrew Adamson’s take on the first chronological episode warm, engrossing, and ‘— so I’m told ‘— very accurate.

But me, I was watching Star Wars when I probably should’ve been reading. For most of you, that’s all you need to know about the worthiness of my opinion. That narrowly tailored audience I generally write to might take at least a small interest in the fact that I wasn’t completely bowled over by Narnia.

The story is that of the four Pevensie children (Georgie Henley, Anna Popplewell, William Moseley and Skandar Keynes) who live in war-ravaged London. Narnia begins when Mrs. Pevensie sends her children to a safe house in the English countryside to escape the punishing onslaught of enemy fire. The estate is owned and inhabited by a mysterious professor who somehow came into possession of a large wardrobe that doubles as a portal to Narnia, a world long held in the grasp of an evil witch (played to sneering perfection by Tilda Swinton) who maintains a perpetual winter over the once-idyllic land. Little do the Pevensies know that upon stumbling through the portal, they’ve fulfilled a prophecy that four human children ‘— ‘sons of Adam, daughters of Eve’ ‘— will join forces with the noble lion Aslan (Liam Neeson) to return Springtime to Narnia.

It’s a timeless story, and I was with it up to a point ‘— and here’s where that PB & J comes in (stick with me, kids ‘— I’ll always bring it back around). The upshot is that some things are always better in one’s mind. When little Lucy passes through the back of the wardrobe to the still, snowy forest, her wide eyes and broad grin captured my feelings entirely: it’s a perfect moment. When she encounters Tumnus, a friendly half-man half-goat, I went along, despite confusion as to whether he represented the pagan god Pan or the traditional representation of an earthly Satan (there’s a separate conversation about messy allegory that I don’t have time to get into). When the talking beavers showed up, they seemed agreeable enough, so I accepted them too.

But as Narnia wore on, I couldn’t silence the adult in me who thought the mysterious land seemed, at least on film, too much like a boarding house for every mythical figure about whom stories have been told. Come centaurs, minotaurs, cyclopses, unicorns, Santa Claus ‘— yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus ‘— mermaids and hippogriffs, every myth and fairytale is represented.

I believe people who say this creates an awesome effect on the page. But perhaps Lewis was on to something when he voiced his disdain for the idea of a Narnia film. We’ve arrived at a point in cinema where computer graphics can render pretty much anything imaginable. But it’s heartening that CGI still pales in comparison to the human mind when it comes to telling a rich, believable story.

Or to put another way, you can stick the sandwich in the VCR, but that doesn’t make it a movie. Sometimes the two should remain separate for the preservation of each one’s integrity. It seems like hubris to think Lewis would have changed his opinion if he’d only seen Jurassic Park.

But like I said, a lot of people will love the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and more power to them. It’s a good film; the young actors do a marvelous job carrying the story and it’s a decent surrogate for people who want to give their children Lord of the Rings-caliber storytelling that’s manageable enough for their young minds (and without all the beheadings).

Me, I’ll look forward to experiencing the rest of the story the way Lewis intended: in a quiet room with the events unfolding in my mind, which has ample space for Santa Claus, unicorns and every marvel in between.

Just to recap, Glen Baity enjoyed Aeon Flux and ‘wasn’t bowled over’ by Narnia. Before you e-mail him your comments at egothelivingplanet@excite.com, please evaluate whether you do so out of pity, contempt, or God help you, admiration.

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