Shuffled off to the English countryside for protection during WWII, siblings Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) are sent to an isolated mansion to wait out the chaos. During a routine game of hide-and-seek, Lucy finds that an old wardrobe is actually a magical portal to the fantasy land of Narnia, where the evil White Witch, Jadis (a miscast Tilda Swinton), has enslaved the land and citizens in snow and ice. After getting a quick tutorial on the ways of Narnia from two helpful talking beavers (Ray Winstone and Dawn French, both contributing wonderful voicework), the kids are given an important mission: help the powerful lion Aslan (Liam Neeson) restore his former rule, and spread peace back to the land with their newfound heroism.
If it seems suspicious that C.S. Lewis' beloved "Narnia" stories are hitting the big screen right after the serious coin "Lord of the Rings" and "The Passion of the Christ" raked in just a few years ago, don't let Disney fool you: they're not doing this for artistic merit. With a huge fantasy fanbase and the ears of the Christian community, "Narnia" is another exploitable literary franchise looking to satisfy the genre fans that aren't often served up this level of escapism.
The similarities between the Lewis and Tolkien world are striking, and not as lazy a comparison as it looks. These are both epic tales of good versus evil, populated with diverse creatures and sweeping landscapes, and looking for a way to reintroduce myth back into the popular culture. Their differences appear to be the target market for the adventure: Lewis was aiming for a slightly younger set with his specific area of fantasy. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (IMDb listing) is painted brightly with unicorns, centaurs, talking beasts of assorted colors, and eventually a weapon-dealing Santa Claus (!). Frankly, the film is a pre-teen slumber party come to life. Director Andrew Adamson, making his live action debut after guiding the two CG "Shrek" endeavors, takes Lewis' narrative very seriously and meticulously details the wonderment of the kids (often at the expense of a snappy pace) as they discover the peril and the potential of their new home. And for that I'm thankful. "Narnia" is widescreen filmmaking for a young audience that is typically ignored, and on that level, the picture is a smashing success. "Narnia" never talks down to kids, and rarely soft-pedals the violence, bending the PG rating to the breaking point where parents of younger children should reconsider bringing the thumbsuckers.
Unfortunately, Adamson finds more trouble in the screenplay (which he co-wrote). Like the theatrical cuts of the "Rings" films, "Narnia" has difficulty assembling a coherent big picture. Much is cleaved away from Lewis' book to fit the lengthy 140-minute running time, which creates distracting gaps in relationships and the story to make room for the big moments, such as the enormous battle between Jadis and Peter's armies that climaxes the film. Adamson has a good hold on the central plot (the kids help Aslan return to power), but as the story progresses, more and more characters are lost in the shuffle, along with the organic connective tissue between important events, leaving the last act of the picture a violent mess, and one that's in a hurry to end. "Narnia" has too many significant narrative elements buzzing about for Adamson to simply skip around the story trying to piece together something digestible. A fable this grand needs to breathe and allow the audience to be welcomed into the fantastical sights and events, and not shoved around when the script gets unwieldy.
The controversial religious overtones to "Narnia" might also blindside some audience members. Adamson is hardly modest with his Christ imagery for Aslan, staging the lion's ultimate confrontation with Jadis in brutal ways that feel eerily similar to "The Passion of the Christ." Perhaps this was Lewis' ultimate agenda for his book, yet the many moments of sacrifice, resurrection, and Judas-like betrayal feel like they're from another film, and not one with talking beavers (who should have their own film) and fur-coat-clad heroes.
Unlike "Rings," it seems as though "Chronicles of Narnia" should've stayed in the hearts and dreams of thoughtful readers who could easily envision a world much grander and consistent than what Adamson has splayed across the screen.
Filmfodder Grade: C