Given the staggeringly vast profits accrued in recent years by the Harry Potter films and Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings movies, it's no wonder studios have been competing to find the next epic fantasy franchise destined to rake in the bucks. Disney has a likely winner in C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, a beloved seven-book children's fantasy series that, as a box-office bonus, serves as a Christian allegory. The religious-community street teams that helped make The Passion Of The Christ a record-breaker have already activated to get the faithful into the theaters in support.
They likely won't be needed to make a hit out of the series' initial installment, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Shrek and Shrek 2 co-director Andrew Adamson takes a muscular, spectacle-heavy approach to the story, packing it with extra drama and visual effects while sticking fairly close to Lewis' plot particulars. The story follows four siblings relocated to the English countryside during World War II. Stuck in an immense house with a cranky housekeeper and a crusty old professor (Jim Broadbent), they entertain themselves by exploring and playing hide and seek. Then the youngest (Georgie Henley) stumbles across a magical portal to Narnia, a mythical realm of fauns, dryads, unicorns, and talking animals, all presided over by an evil witch (Tilda Swinton, now unquestionably the go-to gal for creepy semi-human roles) who holds the land in perpetual winter. Fortunately or unfortunately for Henley and her siblings, they've arrived just in time to go to war at the behest of the lion/ Jesus-figure Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), who's determined to see them fulfill a prophecy and free Narnia from the witch's clutches.
Adamson's film version loses a lot of the flavor of Lewis' dialogue while vaguely attempting to make the material more resonant and relevant by having his child protagonists struggle with their complicated issues about identity, family, and war. But the extra material is handled in such an awkward, perfunctory manner that it's mostly a distraction, and the stars' stiff performances don't help. The film fares better when it gives itself over to pageantry and action—which come in copious quantities—and to the pantheon of gorgeously rendered, hyper-realistic CGI beasties, who are far more expressive than the child stars. Adamson seems to really want to be directing Lord Of The Rings IV, and the material doesn't always support his ambitions. But generations of readers have found The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe to be a gripping adventure that reaches well beyond its religious underpinnings, and this robust version respects both aspects and finds the same winning balance of excitement and meaning.