SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE NAZIS : Andrew Adamson’s ‘… The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ [6/10]

"Quite a journey – and not over yet." So said David Thomson of Tilda Swinton in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film. And he was correct: since that book came out in 2002 the 'journey' has taken Swinton – via Young Adam, The Statement, Constantine, Thumbsucker and Broken Flowers – to C S Lewis's magical kingdom of Narnia. Swinton is by far and away the best thing about this first feature-film version of Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and also the only real reason for adults to seek out what is otherways a decidedly kiddie-centric kind of fantasy, jam-packed with (sometimes ropey) CGI special effects.

It's clearly and unashamedly aimed at a much younger audience that either the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the or Harry Potter series – whose box-office success makers Disney are so very desperate to emulate. Rings is very clearly the template: New Zealand again provides the idyllic/dramatic backdrop, and Adamson (this 'son of Adam' making his live-action debut after the rather campier and more post-modern fairytales of the Shrek pictures) breezily 'hommaging' Peter Jackson in the climactic bloody-big-battle sequence (where, as in Tolkien, the key is the timely arrival of unexpected reinforcements). The first weekend's US takings of $60m (recouping a hefty chunk of the reported $180m budget) suggest Disney are onto a winner – and we can therefore expect further movies based on Lewis's seven-novel series (of which Lion was first to be published, but second in terms of chronology after The Magician's Nephew).

Swinton steals the show so comprehensively that if Disney are planning on doing another Narnia picture, they might be best advised to go the prequel route and film Nephew – the only other of the books in which the White Witch features. Some of the later volumes would seem very difficult projects in the current climate, containing as they do passages and sentiments which to the current audiences would seem shockingly racist. There's actually a lot to object to even in Lion, with its Tolkienish pro-monarchy stance – made to look somewhat daft when the climax features a quadruple coronation that will leave the kids smiling but (like the superfluous, messily-handled coda featuring the Pevensies as adults) is more likely to annoy their accompanying grownups.

Based on the opening weekend's takings, however, the recipe would seem to have clicked in the right places. The better-than-expected haul has been widely credited to Disney shrewdly pushing Wardrobe to the same churchgoing audiences which made block bookings for Mel Gibson's Jesus H Christ and March of the Penguins – 'Jack' Lewis was always open about the fact that his Narnia books were full of Christian allegory and subtext: the titular lion being Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), who roughly corresponds to Jesus Christ himself.

The allegory is a somewhat loose one: after allowing himself to be killed Aslan miraculously "rises" again (one of countless incidents of beloved characters recovering from death – not perhaps the most suitable 'lesson' for children, either in wartime or peace!) And while Aslan does get to say the line "It is finished", he does so in a very different context to Jesus's 'consummatum est' from the Bible, the big cat having just rather violently dispatched an enemy in a manner which is rather more I-come-not-with-peace-but-with-a-sword rather than turning-the-other-cheek.

Like much of what happens in the movie, the Aslan-as-Christ stuff seems to make a kind of sense at first glance, but doesn't really stand up to much scrutiny: the Lord of the Rings movies had their faults, but at least we had the sense that J R R Tolkien had constructed a pretty solid and intricate framework for his mythology. Lewis just seems to chuck in whatever catches his fancy: Tolkien himself criticised Lewis's all-over-the-map approach: "He thought that there were too many elements that clashed €”a Father Christmas and an evil witch, talking animals and children. Thankfully, Lewis didn't listen to any of them."

Being charitable, one might excuse the chaos by saying that Lewis was writing a fantasy for children, from a child's jumbled perspective. The land of Narnia is to some degree a zone of wish-fulfilment for the four bored-to-tears Pevensie children, who discover it via the back of a wardrobe in the rural mansion to which they've been evacuated from Blitz-strafed early-forties London. But while the film's Pevensies are charm itself (William Moseley as oldest sibling Peter; Anna Popplewell as no-nonsense Susan; Skandar Keynes as malcontent Edmund and Georgie Henley as inquisitive moppet Lucy) – and, despite the occasional jarring Americanism – ever so delightfully British – the script (by Ann Peacock, director Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) doesn't allow us to see any real link between their real lives, their imaginations, and events in Narnia.

There's a war in Europe and a war in Narnia, but that's about as far as the connections go: why would these particular children "dream up" a Jesus surrogate in the form of Aslan? What on earth is Santa Claus (James Cosmo) doing here, giving them weapons to take on the White Witch? Is the latter, an unambiguously evil figure, somehow supposed to be the equivalent of Hitler? She has an Aryan air, commands brutish "troops", gets to supervise a midnight, torchlit, sacrificial bacchanal which is a bit of a proto-Nuremberg rally, but her motives remain underwritten and opaque – it seems enough that (like Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin HoodPrince of Thieves) she's cancelled Christmas, in her case indefinitely.

It falls to Swinton – who apparently (and wisely) hadn't read any of the books before taking over a role originally linked with Nicole Kidman and Michelle Pfeiffer – to give the Witch crucial elements of dimension and nuance which neither Lewis nor Adamson and his collaborators saw fit to provide: her erotic thrill (those dilated pupils!) during the sacrifice set-piece is pretty blatant, and the look on her face when she has her (brief) final confrontation with Aslan seems to contain just a hint of carnal surrender. Lewd-minded adults may even wonder what exactly the Witch and Aslan were up to during their long conflab in that large tent, safely sequestered from the innocent eyes of the Pevensies…

It's hard to imagine Lewis or the film-makers even considering going down this particular route, but given Swinton's track record it seems plausible that she should nudge us in this direction – if only out of mischief ("Right, let's see what kind of Derek-Jarmanish naughty fun I can inject into this load of pompous tosh…") If nothing else, she provides ample food for thought in what is otherwise a banquet of disappointingly empty calories.                  

Neil Young
14th December, 2005

seen at Cineworld cinema, Sunderland (UK), 12th December 2005 – public show