A wardrobe is a place of wonders. Ralph Waldo Emerson tells of his long walk with Nathaniel Hawthorne in which the two men had their first chance to "show each other our cabinets." The wardrobe appears, too, in an early Roman Polanski film in which two men come out of the sea carrying a large wardrobe and mysteriously walk through a small town with it. In Renaissance times, a magus might build a cabinet the size of a wardrobe and fill it with magical images from mythology and astrology. The wardrobe has a history of representing the storehouse of memories, fantasies, and deep mythic figures that influence our lives.

So I looked forward to the new film version of C. S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Though I never read these books, I have a warm appreciation for Oz and the land behind Alice's looking glass-all kinds of interior, otherworld spaces.

The opening of this film was promising, with a poignant scene of children leaving their mother behind in a heavily bombed London. They travel to the countryside and find themselves in a beautiful mansion with an upper room empty except for a wardrobe.

But when Lucy, played with charming freshness by Georgie Henley, finds her way out of the back of the cabinet and into a winter scene, I got a chill. I've known many winter wonderlands, and this wasn't one of them. It turns out that the children (the other three come through to Narnia eventually) find themselves as part of a prophecy of a promised messiah-a sort of Richard the Lionhearted revolution that involves a war between the lion Aslan and the White Witch, Queen Jadis. In Narnia there is magic, but much of it is in the service of the Defense Department.

My first glimpse of fauns, unicorns, and centaurs, so life-like in their digitalized way in the film, was thrilling. I have an attraction to mythology and creatures of other planes. But then the plot unfolded into the desperate pseudo-myth of our time: dealing with conflict by polarizing the factions ad engaging in war and savagery.

The White Witch, portrayed with unearthly coldness by Tilda Swinton, frightened me. As I watched her Momma Dearest maneuver of switching from nurturing mother to sadistic torturer, I asked myself why evil is represented here by a cold woman. There is something of the gorgon Medusa in her. Medusa turned people to stone, while the ice queen freezes anyone who offends her.

I don't think it's sexist to embody evil in a woman, no more so than in a man, but you can ask what it means. I do feel that we live in a cold society today, almost everywhere lacking a warm maternal element. I have had clerks and passersby freeze me with their cold looks, and I know what it is to walk into a chilly office building-and I don't mean the room temperature.

We are all familiar with the winter of Narnia.

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  • In reaction, we also like sentimentality today, the kind that spills all over the friendly beavers in the movie and the impossibly noble lion. With his warm breath the latter brings back to life those who have been frozen by the queen. In life, sentimentality and violence go together. We rationalize our warfare with sentimental appeals to righteousness and patriotism, and we sentimentalize brutal warfare in warm and fuzzy films. It is a major problem in the contemporary character.

    The children in this film seemed to me to be in dire need of family therapy. Maybe the freeze affected their acting, or maybe, in the story, the children needed more than the ice queen as a surrogate for the mother they left behind in London. I couldn't help indulging in a little armchair psychoanalysis: Does the movie suggest that in our own lives we leave the warm home of our mothers for a surrogate culture of ice?

    I'll accept that Narnia is the world of imagination that resides like a Jungian unconscious beneath ordinary life. But it is not a pleasant place! This is a terrifying movie. I wouldn't bring little children to it. Not only because of its violence and war mania, but also because it offers no real resolution. It ends, as all wars do, with victors and the vanquished, waiting to see who will fight the next one. The lion is made to sound wise and evolved, but he does little more than strut, make grand entrances and exits, and encourage military mayhem. A Christ-figure, some have said. Hardly.

    A subplot about the betrayal on the part of the younger brother Edmund brings a modicum of subtlety to an otherwise good guys-bad guys flick, but it isn't big enough or sufficiently complex to overcome the general theme of cowboys and Indians. I'm sure Narnia must be a more interesting place.

    When you dare, like Lucy, to crawl into the wardrobe and find your way into its otherworld, you have to have your eyes attuned to mystery and your ears to poetry. This film is too literal. It never gets out of the wardrobe itself enough to appreciate another world. We never leave World War II and London. It needs a tornado to take it to Kansas, where something really magical might happen.

    The special effects and the improbable creatures are awesome. But clever effects don't make magic, which I assume is what C. S. Lewis was trying to evoke.

    On the other hand, our real-life wars surely mirror conflicts that lie deep inside us. Maybe today we are all caught in the complex of the warm lion and the woman of ice: Our nobility is theatrical and our emotions cold. Like our leaders, the citizens of Narnia don't seem capable of looking for evil in themselves. They have to fight, as Edmund says, to the finish. When our military people say ruggedly that they will never cut and run, I hear a cold mother breathing frosty in the background. Maybe she is the guiding spirit at boot camp.

    In a world full of violent conflict, we are all familiar with the winter of Narnia. I would rather see a film that offers an alternative, some hope and complexity, real warmth. But maybe this film is deeply realistic and reflects exactly where we are. Maybe our generals serve an ice-cold goddess. Maybe all our wars are cold wars.

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