The scariest scene in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes at the start. And it has nothing to do with lions or witches or even wardrobes. A night sky, darkened by smoke, is filled with warplanes. As the Germans bomb London during WWII, the Pevensie children scramble to the backyard bomb shelter. The eldest, Peter (William Moseley), becomes impatient when his brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) goes back for their father’s framed photo. As they huddle in the underground shelter, the explosions and sirens fading into background noise, Peter harrumphs, “Why can’t you just do as you’re told?”
The stakes in this film-with-plans-to-be-a-franchise are plainly established: the war is a terrible thing, but family tensions must be resolved. At least, those of the fraternal sort. Mother Pevensie, so Englishly gallant as she comforts her girls — Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) — in that shelter, is disappeared from the movie in the very next scene, as she sends the kids off by train to live in the countryside, at the estate of one Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent). As he’s not used to dealing with guests, let alone children, he’s guarded by his fierce housekeeper Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthornea). Though she inspires in the children a kind of dread of the professor, the man himself turns out to be rather wise and warm, even going so far as to encourage the children in their great adventure, the one that begins with the wardrobe.
This would be the portal to a fantastic land of vast magic, great woods, and talking animals, all made famous in C.S. Lewis’ children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia. The movie follows the plot and characterizations pretty much as the first book lays out: once they bumble through the fur coats hung up in Professor Kirke’s wardrobe into the snowy woods that comprise the outskirts of Narnia, they find another set of tensions, usefully parallel to those of their own world and indeed, their own family.
Six-year-old believer Lucy meets the faun Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) (who kidnaps her and then promptly apologizes, so undone is he by her sweetness), though petulant Edmond at first disbelieves her story of the snowy wood, he soon discovers it for himself, then lies about it in order to hide his new acquaintanceship with the White Witch, Jadis (the formidable Tilda Swinton), who has tempted him with Turkish Delight and promised him superiority over his righteous older brother. The fact that she is lying (or for that matter, that the faun was lying) matters less than how the children read the stories they’re told. Lucy reads generously and with great faith: even though she appears to misread Mr. Tumnus by trusting him, she proves correct, as he is a moral sort after all. Edmond reads selfishly.
This inclination casts him as “fallen.” Or at least, he’s working out a powerful umbrage toward his too-perfect siblings (his rage also has to do with his missing his father, away at the war) and his own desire to be special. At the same time, his jealousy and meanness make childish sense, as Lucy remains angelic and adored, by her siblings as well as the chatty fauna who populate Narnia, including Beaver (Ray Winstone) and Mrs. Beaver (Dawn French).
While Jadis currently holds Narnia under a wintry sway, she dreads the return of Aslan the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson), the story’s infamous Christ figure. The Pevensies, for their part, discover all sorts of Christian iconography and structures, as they come to understand themselves as chosen and their mission as saving the kingdom. Designated by their Narinan hosts as Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, the children understand themselves as quite British, expecting and delighting in tea, toast, and jam.
As the kids at first resist their “destiny” (Susan is especially rational, and so finds the fantasy a bit illogical), they are instructed by the beavers as well as Father Christmas (James Cosmo) himself. He drops by with his reindeer and sleigh to dole out gifts (a bow and arrows, sword, a healing potion) specific to the tasks the children will perform in battle. At this point, Peter, Susan, and Lucy are looking for Aslan, in hopes that he will help them save Edmond, currently in chains at the Witch’s feet, even as she and her “secret police” (a pack of wolves) are hunting the children. The Witch’s power depends on her capacity to instill fear in her “subjects,” while Aslan inspires “hope,” the faith that conditions might change, that the sun might warm the earth.
The film, directed by Shrek‘s Andrew Adamson, designates moral positions in part by associating certain animals and mythical creatures with them. These embodiments take a cue from the Lord of the Rings franchise, assembled according to beauty and horridness: sleek and elegant animals like cheetahs and horses and centaurs form Aslan’s crew; ogres, dwarves, and minotaurs constitute Jadis’ fearsome assembly. No surprise, the children are aligned with those beings most pleasing to the eye, and Lucy especially is attached to Aslan, so sublime and so otherworldly that at times he appears not to exist in the same physical realm as his compatriots — this being a function of the limitations of CGI, but also, in its way, thematically resonant.
The final battle returns the children to the opening of the film: they witness (and now enact) violent destruction of bodies and material. This time, the fight images are rendered in gallant and rather grand terms, as the two armies gather on hilltops and leaders raise their arms to prompt forward motion. This motion initially is like thunder — a rush of rumbling hooves and wheels. At the moment of first impact, when a cheetah and a tiger leap on one another, the sound goes out for an instant (and so, for that instant, you are spared from Harry Gregson-Williams’ overbearing score). It’s awful, maybe thrilling, but only for a moment. It recalls the awesome power of war, to pretend glory and abstract honor. And then the children’s indoctrination seems less charming. They are warriors, drawn into killing and a general faith in militarism, into the sense that wars might solve problems, or at the least, beat them into submission. And that is very scary.