I first read C.S. Lewis' novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when I was eight years old, and last read it when I was twelve at the latest, so my recollections of the story are sketchy in places. However, going on those sometimes-rusty, sometimes-not memories, I think I can fairly say that this film does a good job at capturing the essence of the book, which is a decent enough achievement, as I did enjoy the book, and I can still enjoy the film. Seeing as bits and pieces of the story and even dialogue came back to me as I was watching, I would guess that they stayed pretty close.
Age does change the way one sees things. At eight, it was perfectly possible-one might say effortless-to read the novel without ever even noticing the inch-thick glaze of Christian allegory that Lewis liberally applied to his epic tale with a shovel. This approach wasn't altered with the film incarnation of the story; on the contrary, the filmmakers made as much of that angle as they could, even screening the movie for entirely church-going audiences in order to gauge their approval. Knowing this is almost enough to make the rational thinkers among us run screaming for the hills of sanity rather than be a party to what could be perceived as another piece of religious propaganda, a sort of The Passion of the Christ for a younger and less sadistic audience, but it would be a mistake. A smallish mistake, for The Chronicles of Narnia, while entertaining enough, aren't quite the extraordinary and immersive experience that Lewis' good friend J. R. R. Tolkein's famous creations are. Narnia is smaller scale and much more kid-friendly, but the film is fortunately well-made enough to appeal to kids with brains, and therefore most adults as well.
The basic story involves a group of four siblings, two brothers and two sisters, who discover the way into a fantasy land through the back of a mysterious old wardrobe. Aside from the fact that most kids today wouldn't know what a wardrobe even is, since we in the civilized world have long since invented the closet, the notion is a pretty fundamentally intriguing one which has found a place in many stories of escapism and the fantastical. The other world has its own problems, naturally, and it's up to the four children, along with a mythic savior known as Aslan, to free Narnia from the grip of the White Witch and perpetual winter.
At a time when huge epic films laden with CG creatures are fast becoming nearly the norm, there's still some wowing to be had here, particularly in the case of Aslan, a very beautifully realized animated lion excellently voiced by Liam Neeson. One wouldn't be too far off the mark to say that this film owes its very existence less to the popularity of the Lewis book and more to the success of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, which not only introduced New Zealand to the rest of the world as an ideal place for fantasy filmmaking, but also whetted the public's desire to actually see fantasy films again, after a less-than-steller reputation brought upon by endless examples of crap like the Dungeons and Dragons movie. The effects work here is definitely on a par with Rings, though the direction is somewhat more sedated and reserved. Not bad, just less visceral. Clearly great pains were taken to avoid disturbing children and Christians, two very easily disturbed demographics, and thus there are no explosive exclamations of "bleeding Jesus rectum" (a popular expletive present in nearly every other film, including its famous sixty-seven usages in Citizen Kane) or scenes featuring blood, despite a lengthy battle fought primarily with edged weapons and by betoothed and clawed creatures. The good news is that Aslan is much cooler than Jesus, and does not make us sit through any murky parables or cursings of fig trees along the way. At the same time, Lewis makes an interesting choice in diverging from the source of his mythology by presenting the Judas character as being redeemable, and thus avoiding all that tedious charade with the hanging and the gushing bowels and such. Those who subscribe to the whole Christ legend will have little to complain about here (unless they're as genuinely crazy as Jack T. Chick, who classified the works of both Lewis and Tolkein as witchcraft), and those of us who don't can simply view it as another permutation of a classic myth.
Perhaps The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe didn't make me want to jump up on my chair and scream and clap with glee, but few films do that to me anymore. Unfortunate (though perhaps not to anyone seated behind me), but true. There's enough here to make me smile, but not quite enough to make me cheer unduly. That, for the most part, must suffice. But I'll say this: the little girl who plays Lucy does quite the impressive job, i.e. she actually can act and never becomes one of those precocious screen waifs you just end up wanting to punt into the sun, and that alone is worth a great deal of praise. Considering just how much of the film is centered on her, it might've been rather disastrous otherwise.
-review by Matt Murray