*The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (PG)
Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
The theater lights still down, I was sitting awash in the wonder of this terrific film when the bespectacled little boy sitting next to me let out a breathy, "Wow. That was good." I nodded swift agreement as a hand reached out from behind me and clasped the boy's shoulder.
"Did you see all the biblical allusions we talked about?" asked the boy's father, sending Narnia and all its creatures skittering into the closet of my consciousness as quick as you can say, "jackrabbit." The deflation was immediate. But The Chronicles of Narnia had cast its magic nonetheless, and it lingered for days.
Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek) has done a masterful job adapting C.S. Lewis' beloved children's book to the screen. His Narnia joins the most magical locales in film history, alongside Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Oz and the woods surrounding Elliot's house in ET.
Whether Lewis would have approved of the vicious and divisive marketing ploys claiming the film for a fundamentalist Christian audience, and casting fear and dread on secular filmgoers, has been debated widely since before the film was released. But viewers tutored in biblical symbolism and those pagans just out for a two-hour escape no doubt will enjoy the film equally.
Except for a slight overdose of computer-generated special effects in the battle scenes -- Narnia on steroids -- it is simply wonderful.
The Pevensie children have fled London in the midst of the German bombing blitz to stay with a distant relative in the countryside. Bored and frightened by their displacement, they discover a wardrobe in an abandoned bedroom that's a portal to a snow-covered kingdom called Narnia.
We're clued into its magic by the wondrous expression on the face of young Lucy (Georgie Henley), who is confronted by Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a "fawn" with a human torso, deer haunches and hooves and goat ears.
Juggling an armload of packages, Mr. Tumnus invites Lucy to tea under false pretenses -- his intention is to capture a human for the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who has cast a spell over Narnia, making it perpetual winter. But the child's purity disarms him, and us, and he can't follow through. Instead, he assists her in a quick escape.
Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the middle brother, falls into the witch's clutches. Older siblings Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) spend the bulk of the film rescuing him, and Narnia, with the help of lion king Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson).
Lucy remains the trusting, observant moral leader of the clan as they befriend a pair of Cockney-accented beavers, wield magical weapons, traverse frozen rivers, fight terrifying and mangy wolves, learn important lessons and eventually find their way home.
Along with Aslan's waving mane and stately presence, the gorgeous but not-too-showy production design and a tight script will transport even skeptics to Narnia. Swinton's glacial composure as the White Witch seems more Nordic than biblical, but who cares? She's as good a bad witch as any seasoned fantasy filmgoer could wish for.
Holding the film together, however, is young Henley, a wonderful child actress who reinforces Lewis' contribution to children's literature. The legendary author affirms that kids can be industrious, brave and self-sufficient, even when their parents have gone missing -- and that, yes, entrance to magical realms lies within the territory of childhood. Adults may watch only from a distance.
-- Kathryn Eastburn