C.S. Lewis had a picture pop into his head when he was 16 years old—a faun carrying an umbrella and several parcels in a snowy wood. He never forgot it, and at the age of 40, he decided to write a book about it.
During World War II, like many British children, the Pevensies are evacuated from London and sent to live in the country. They move in with Professor Digory Kirke (Jim Broadbent). The Professor’s housekeeper, Mrs. Macready (Elizabeth Hawthorne) warns them the Professor is not accustomed to children under foot. The children are Peter (William Mosely), Susan (Anne Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley).
In a game of hide-and-seek, Lucy discovers a wardrobe in an otherwise empty room in the rambling house and enters the World of Narnia. Near a lamppost in the snow-covered forest, she sees a faun, Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), who invites her into his home. He plays a lullaby on his flute and puts her to sleep. When she wakes up, she finds him in tears. He tells her that the White Witch, Jadis (Tilda Swinton), has cursed Narnia to a hundred years of winter, but she fears human beings and has ordered anyone who meets a Daughter of Eve or a Son of Adam must bring them to her. He cannot bring himself to do that, so he sends her home, back through the wardrobe. She finds that no time has passed, and the other children do not believe her.
One night, Edmund follows Lucy into the wardrobe and enters Narnia. Looking for Lucy, he meets the impressive White Witch, riding a sleigh drawn by white reindeer. She offers him tea and Turkish Delight, which is a precious commodity during the war, and says she will make him King if he brings the other children. He finds Lucy and returns to this world. Lucy tells Peter and Susan what happened, but Edmund does not back up her story. Professor Kirke tends to believe her, but the other children do not.
The children accidentally break a window. Running away from Mrs. Macready, they hide in the wardrobe and enter Narnia. The older children scold Edmund for lying and make him apologize to Lucy. Then they discover that the Witch has taken Mr. Tumnus, and they meet a couple of beavers (Voice of Ray Winstone and voice of Dawn French), who tell them about Aslan, the great and wise lion who made Narnia. According to prophecy, the Witch’s reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on the Four Thrones. Edmund sneaks off to visit the Witch and finds her furious that he has not brought the other children. She sends her wolf secret police after them and the beavers. She chains Edmund in the dungeon, where he meets Mr. Tumnus, whom the Witch turns to stone. Now Edmund knows why her garden is full of statues.
The children and the Beavers think the White Witch has found them, but it is only Father Christmas, who gives them defensive weapons—Lucy a healing cordial and a dagger, Susan a magic horn that will summon help and a bow and arrows, Peter a sword and shield. After escaping from the wolves, they reach Aslan’s camp, filled with talking animals and classical creatures. Aslan is a huge and beautiful golden lion with Liam Neeson’s voice (and perhaps a particular set of skills.) Two wolves ambush Lucy and Susan; Peter defends them and kills Maugrim the Wolf Captain (Michael Madsen’s voice). Aslan knights him for this.
The White Witch appears and claims Edmund as a sacrifice, but Aslan offers himself. As Lucy and Susan watch, he is humiliated by a coven of foul creatures and stabbed to death by the White Witch. In the morning he is resurrected, more powerful than before. He takes Susan and Lucy to the Witch’s castle and frees the stone prisoners with his breath. Peter is chosen to lead Aslan’s army. There is a great battle, the Witch driving her war-chariot, drawn by polar bears. While saving Peter from the Witch, Edmund is mortally wounded. Lucy revives him with the cordial. Aslan arrives with reinforcements and kills the Witch.
The Pevensies are crowned King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just, and Queen Lucy the Valiant. They live happily in Narnia for fifteen years, becoming adults. Chasing a white stag through the forest, they discover the wardrobe. They pass through and come out as children again. No time has passed. Later, in mid-credits, Lucy tries to enter Narnia again, and the Professor tells her he has been trying to get there for years, but—who knows?—she may find herself in Narnia when she least expects it.
Director Andrew Adamson listened to 2500 tapes and met 1800 children before deciding on the four Pevensies. Liam Neeson actively campaigned for his role. There was talk of setting the film in America (Gag!) but the success of Harry Potter showed that they could set it in the U.K. and American audiences would watch it. Guillermo del Toro turned it down because he was directing Pan’s Labyrinth. The movie was filmed in New Zealand, which didn’t hurt a bit. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends for decades and discussed their work constantly. A comparison of the Chronicles of Narnia with Lord of the Rings is, in my opinion, fascinating. For one thing, the former is for children and the latter for grown-ups. (Game of Thrones is not for grown-ups; it’s for adults.) The creatures in one are from classical mythology—fauns and centaurs and minotaurs—and the creatures in the other are from Norse mythology—elves and dwarves and trolls and goblins. One features four children as protagonists and the other four child-like hobbits. Aslan and Gandalf have the same job, as do the White Witch and Saruman. Tolkien often grumbled that C.S. Lewis was stealing his ideas, but I think what really bothered him was that Lewis wrote seven slim Narnia books in seven years and was lionized, while Tolkien labored like a monk, in relative obscurity, for seventeen years, to write Lord of the Rings.