One of the hardest things about growing up with a story you truly adore is revisiting that story as an adult and finding it lacking. Like the first time you realize that George Lucas can’t write dialogue that resembles actual human speech, or that Disney’s “Snow White” is really just a thin-blooded romance with confused short people who fall down a lot, or that the moral of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is that bad people will be nice if you yank out their teeth and shove them off a cliff. You wince, you shake your head, and a joyful memory begins to rust.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I attended the screen adaptation of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Raised as I was on the fiction of C.S. Lewis, I already had seen it taken down a peg or two when I re-read the series as an adult with a more critical eye. I still enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the same, of course. I worried that seeing it adapted to the screen would only tarnish the memory further, but soon discovered that my worrying was for nothing — the film is both faithful and beautiful, and breathes new life into the story.
The story, in case you’re not familiar, is that of four children — Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy — who are sent to live with a reclusive, somewhat dotty old professor in the country. While exploring his house, they discover an old wardrobe, which, as it turns out, happens to be a gateway to another world, a place of magic known as Narnia.
Narnia suffers under a 100-year-old curse of constant winter placed upon it by the White Witch, who has declared herself Queen of all Narnia. But there is a prophecy that four humans, two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve, will arrive and aid the mystical lion Aslan in destroying the witch and bringing spring back to the land.
What follows is a rich tale of war and betrayal and selfishness and sacrifice that has inspired children for the last 55 years, and the film beautifully captures its soul. Narnia is here fully realized much as Lewis described it, with those necessary touches of whimsy and the surreal that add depth to the backdrop and encourage us to drink in the fantastic.
One of the best decisions director Andrew Adamson made was casting unknown actors for the vast majority of the parts — refraining from hiring a “name” actor for every voiceover kept the film from devolving into the usual game of Guess the Celebrity, though the talents of Tilda Swinton as the White Witch and Rupert Everett as the Fox were a perfect match. Swinton steals every single scene she’s in, deftly balancing the Witch’s cruelty and ambition against her beauty and affected, deadly charm.
Liam Neeson’s appearance as the voice of Aslan was also quite well done, though Neeson’s voice and delivery were a fair bit gentler than I expected from the Lord of Narnia, lacking some of the fearsomeness and forbidding quality of the Lion of Lewis’ stories. The Lion is supposed to stand for God, after all, and his demeanor should reflect that. We do get to see him bare his claws and fangs in battle, however, and those battles are a sight to see.
Those who favor Lewis’ writings for their moral and spiritual dimension will be pleased to learn that the story has not been significantly watered down for marketability. The movie is every bit the Christian allegory wrapped in pagan clothing that Lewis intended it to be. Likewise, those of different faiths need not fear that the movie is simply a vehicle for preaching — there is much here to embrace, much to delight.
There is also much to shake your head at, like the idea that a teen-age boy can suddenly lead a medieval army and make complex tactical decisions because he Believes In Himself, or that his captain, a fierce and somewhat frightening centaur, would not even bother to offer to lend his expertise to such an inexperienced boy, or indeed that allowing four children to rule an entire country remotely resembles a wise decision. But flaws like these are flaws of story, flaws faithfully adapted from Lewis’s novel, flaws that spark children’s imaginations and make them want to believe. Besides, you’ll be having so much fun that you almost won’t care.
Concerned parents should know that the battle scenes are big but bloodless, suitable for an epic struggle but not likely to frighten children. Even if you kept your little ones away from Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings,” I think you’ll find Narnia a less frightening and more family-friendly place, though every bit as rich and engrossing.
If the Bush administration has taught us anything (besides never elect a guy who thought all those D’s on his report card stood for “Damn fine”) it’s that if the American public knew the shady, underhanded, immoral and downright evil things being done in the name of American commerce and industry around the world, we’d probably all cash in our Social Security cards for some nice, clean Canadian citizenship.
That goes double when it comes to the oil industry. Our 100-year cheap petroleum bender has been largely purchased with misery, death and tyranny. Not for us, of course, but for people in countries with names most Americans can’t pronounce, much less find on a world map.
That, in a nutshell, is the message behind the new film “Syriana.” A morality play for our time — in this case, the morals of oil: what American will do to get it, and what American business will do to make sure you keep on wanting to get it. It’s a hell of a picture. As confusing and convoluted as international intrigue, it’s one of those movies that will keep you pinned in your seat for two hours, and then keep you thinking long after that.
The plot, a series of interconnected stories that eventually collide in a violent crush, is hard to explain; purposefully so, it seems. George Clooney is at the center of the story as Bob Barnes, a tubby career CIA agent who is getting back into the field after several years pushing paper, soon developing a case of conscience when dealing with a plot to kill a Middle Eastern reformer. On the other side of the geopolitical fence financial analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a young father who gets stuck with going to the meet-and-greet of a Middle Eastern prince (Alexander Siddig) in Spain. Tragedy strikes when Woodman’s young son is killed on the prince’s estate in a freak accident. Seeking to make amends, the prince hires Woodman as his personal adviser — a role which soon proves to Woodman that his new boss is more than just another money-hungry powerbroker, with ideas about democracy and social change that might bring his country into a new and prosperous era. Opposing this, of course, are terrorist groups, Islamic fundamentalists, and secretive factions of the American government, who — along with a cabal of Houston oil executives and glassy-eyed neo-conservatives who envision an Americanized world — have been trading in Middle Eastern misery for years.
That’s the short form, but in the end, “Syriana” is infinitely more complex than your average Tom Clancy-style potboiler. The story comes at you in a wave, often globe-hopping so fast you can’t keep up with where you’ve landed on the map. To boot, the characters (even the big-name stars) drift on and off the stage with no sense of their eventual importance or relevance to how it all turns out. While that might sound like a bad thing, the sense of confusion that instills — in the characters, in the scene, in the plot — is a perfect mirror for the thoroughly topsy-turvy moral world projected on screen.
The end, the main message of “Syriana” might just be that in modern global politics — especially those tainted with oil — no one comes out clean. Beautifully shot, well acted, chilling in both story and real-world implication, it’s a fine movie, and probably closer to real life than we would ever know, or would want to know.
— By David Koon