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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Not Quite as Wondrous or Magical as Fans Had Hoped

Based on the first book in C.S. Lewis' classic children's fantasy series (chronologically the second book), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a lavishly produced big-budget adaptation of what's hoped to be a profitable, long-running franchise similar to the Harry Potter series and the recently completed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but with a younger demographic in mind.

C.S. Lewis, a medieval scholar, novelist, and late convert to Christianity, infused his fictional works with Christian symbolism, allegory, and themes. His fantasy novels continue to captivate young readers, however, not because of the pro-Christian apologetics he hoped to impart, but simply because young readers continue to enjoy Lewis' straightforward, myth-based storytelling and sympathetic characters. Despite several (for some, one too many) heavy-handed moments, the same holds for the big-screen adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Set during the opening years of the Second World War, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe centers on the four Pevensie siblings, Peter (William Moseley), the oldest and the natural leader, Susan (Anna Popplewell), the second oldest, Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the resentful, younger brother, and Lucy (Georgie Henley), the youngest of the four and the most adventurous. The Pevensies are sent to live with an elderly professor in the countryside, where their mother hopes they'll be safe from the nightly air raids by the Germans. Wandering through the large, unexplored house, Lucy finds a wardrobe at the end of an empty, sunlight room. Curiosity gets the better of Lucy and she slips into the wardrobe. The wardrobe, of course, serves as a portal between their world and Narnia, a fantastical winter world of witches, talking animals, dwarves, and other magical creatures.

Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a half-man/half-goat who befriends Lucy and invites her over to his home a cup of tea. After returning to our world, she happily shares her experiences in Narnia with her siblings, who disbelieve her. Curious about Lucy's story, Edmund follows her one night into the wardrobe. He crosses over into Narnia and encounters Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). She's also the Queen of Narnia. After a misadventure in the "real" world, the four children enter the wardrobe simultaneously. There, they meet Mr. Beaver (voiced by Ray Winstone) and Mrs. Beaver (Dawn French), who fill them in on the White Witch, her authoritarian rule over Narnia, and the return of Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), a talking lion and legendary leader. Aslan's has returned to Narnia to overturn the White Witch's rule, but he needs help, the Pevensies' help.

In writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis borrowed heavily from the New Testament resurrection story. Although sacrifice, death, and resurrection are closely linked with the central beliefs of Christianity, Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on these mythic concepts (other religious traditions share them as well). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe politics are anything but progressive, from the central premise of ordinary characters discovering fantastical, heroic destinies, to the thinly veiled admiration of feudalism (replacing authoritarian monarchs with benevolent ones), to the disappointing passivity of the two female characters during the climactic battle (they're left behind illogically to "witness" the central miracle) and, finally, to cheapening the final triumph over the villain by re-inserting a presumably fallen character. Both sides of the political spectrum can agree, however, with the generally inoffensive depiction of the Pevensies and their collective journey from distrust and resentment to reciprocity and reconciliation (lessons usually associated with children's fantasy fiction).

In addition, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe suffers from pacing problems, spending too much time in World War II England early in the film and spending insufficient time developing Aslan as a character and his relationship with the children. The children's worshipful relationship with Aslan happens almost instantaneously, making their unquestioning obedience and loyalty difficult to accept. Then there's the awkward relationship between Mr. Tumnus and Lucy. Lucy's openly naïve trust of the significantly older Mr. Tumnus and his intentions seems unwise, not to mention raise a questioning eyebrow or two from contemporary (read: jaded) audiences prone to seeing adult/child relationships between non-relatives as inappropriate.

Effects wise, Aslan may be the closest digital animation has come to photorealism, but he still falls short, believability wise. A better route would have been a combination of animatronics and CGI (for the medium or long shots). And for those viewers left cold by the seemingly interminable battles between CGI armies found in Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy, they can expect more of the same here.

Given that The Chronicles of Narnia was filmed partly in New Zealand, comparisons to Jackson’s Rings trilogy are inevitable (as will the phrase “Jackson-lite”)." Although the director, Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek II) sought to distinguish The Chronicles of Narnia through set design and location shooting, Adamson indulges in Jackson-like sweeping panoramic shots, overhead crane shots, and all the high-end digital animation that money can buy, especially during the (predictably) epic battle scene that closes the film.

Adamson and Disney also decided to use Jackson's Weta Workshop to provide creature, armor, and weapon designs. Alas, the overly familiar creature designs readily invite viewers to make additional (perhaps one too many) comparisons between The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Jackson's Rings trilogy. The comparison is likely to be unfavorable, although Adamson deserves credit for keeping a tight rein on the running time. Children and their parents, however, will be more than pleased with the first of what promises to be another fantasy franchise.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars