Great resources have been marshaled to adapt the first novel in C.S. Lewis' seven-part series, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which depicts an epic battle between good and evil in a magical parallel world. The source material is a mix of children's story, myth, religious allegory and fantasy, and thus any successful cinematic adaptation has a particularly tricky mission: to be wonderfully all things to such disparate folks as Christian educators, fantasy geeks, easily bored children and the vast readership of C.S. Lewis (more than 90 million copies sold worldwide).
For what it's worth, I bring few biases to the task: I've never read the books; I'm not much for fantasy narratives; and you'll never catch me seeking out parallels to the Christ story at the multiplex, or anywhere else for that matter. I am, though, prone to becoming bored and fidgety, especially during films that break the two-hour mark.
Thus I am pleased to report that director Andrew Adamson has combined top-notch computer imaging, a winsome cast of child actors (as well as a few old hands), spectacular sets and a simple if compelling narrative to create a lush, fully realized other-world whose troubles should hold the attention of all parties.
The story begins during a bad patch in our world: The four Pevensie children are sent away from London during the Blitz to a large house in the countryside. While playing hide-and-seek, the youngest, Lucy (Georgie Henley), burrows deep into a wardrobe and -- whoops! -- finds it is a portal to another world. And not a very pleasant world, according to a nervous faun (half shirtless man, half goat) she encounters. This snowy place -- Narnia -- is ruled by the evil White Witch, Jadis, who favors the killing season. "It's always winter, but never Christmas," laments the faun.
Soon, the other three siblings -- the eldest, Peter (William Moseley), the cautious Susan (Anna Popplewell) and the sulky, impetuous Edmund (Skandar Keynes) -- join Lucy. Under the guidance of kindly talking beavers, the children are armed and conscripted into joining the lion Aslan, the leader of an army preparing to take back Narnia from the White Witch. The tale follows the children as they make a perilous journey to meet Aslan, their mission complicated by Edmund, who -- as somebody always must -- has betrayed them to the witch for a few pieces of silver (or in this case, a tin of Turkish Delight). It all culminates in a fierce, if bloodless, battle, populated by all manner of fantastic creatures.
It's to Adamson's credit that somebody who made his mark directing a pair of snarky fairy-tale send-ups (the Shrek comedies) has delivered this story without any obvious modern winks or updates. The film is reverentially gorgeous -- whether it's set pieces such as the meticulously crafted ice palace, with its entry hall of flash-frozen former enemies, or the naturally dramatic scenery of New Zealand, where much of the film was shot. Narnia has a depth of detail that, like its epic magical cinematic predecessors Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, enables us to feel at home in an off-kilter reality. That's important because Narnia isn't a dream world in someone's mind but an actual world someplace else.
Yes, there are parallels to the story of Christ, though they are hardly explicit (I suspect that most children will be rapt with the basic storyline). Most viewers will simply note the easy secular lessons about loyalty, forgiveness, redemption and faith. And children should find Narnia vicariously empowering, and not in any contemporarily cheesy way where some mouthy kid acquires a magical power. While the Pevensie kids fall into another war-torn world, in Narnia they aren't helpless babes to be managed by adults; they're active participants, dependent on their own skills. These children are not only keepers of their own destinies, but, as foretold, are a necessary component to restoring warmth, order and goodness to Narnia.
The quartet of child actors plays the material earnestly, never succumbing to cutesy, though Henley is quite endearing as the open-hearted, wide-eyed Lucy. Liam Neeson provides the voice of Aslan, and Ray Winstone and Dawn French lend their working-class tones to the bickering Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. And while a fantastic amount of costuming -- a hairdo of frozen dreadlocks topped by a crown of icicles, snow-white furs, a glittery ice-blue gown -- comprises the White Witch's chilly presentation, one senses that the actress Tilda Swinton, with her luminously pale skin and sharp cruel expressions, could play this terrifying role in simply a bed sheet.
At times I wished there'd been more backstory: the origin of the battle between Jadis and Aslan; the source of various magical powers; why such a place was linked to a wardrobe otherwise collecting dust back in England; and what a certain well-known kindly bearded figure was doing knocking about Narnia when I thought he lived at the North Pole. Evidently such mysteries are addressed later in the series, so it's either the library or the long wait for the inevitable sequels for answers. And while inquiring minds may want to know now, it shouldn't detract from your enjoyment of this film. After all, we can't expect to learn everything about a new world in just one visit.